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Seeing spots in the mirror can feel less than thrilling, especially since their appearance is one of the leading signs of aging.
The good news is that you can improve and sometimes even eliminate the stubborn visitors, though you can’t use the same solution for all. Effective treatments differ by the type of pigmentation at hand.
Use the handy guide below to find out what kind of spots you have, and how to steer your game plan for bright, glowing skin in the right direction—at any age.
Brown Sun Spots
The Cause: “Hyperpigmentation is the darkening of the skin caused by overactive skin cells called melanocytes,” explains Dr. David Bank, president of the New York State Society for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery. The process can be triggered by sun rays, changing hormone levels, illness and medications.
Prevention: Daily use (rain or shine!) of SPF 30 or greater is your strongest ally against brown spots. Bank prefers sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, referring to physical sunscreen ingredients that some experts feel are more reliable than their chemical counterparts.
At-Home Treatment: A dizzying array of products that purport to lighten and brighten skin flood the shelves today; according to Bank, the most effective ingredients to look for on ingredient labels are retinol, licorice root extract and ascorbic acid (another name for vitamin C).
In-Office Treatment: Depending on the depth of and darkness of your damage, Fraxel laser ($500-$1500), Diode laser ($500-$1000), or lighter chemical peels that employ glycolic, kojic or ascorbic acids ($150-$300) may be used.
The Cause: Following acne or skin trauma like a wound, this type of discoloration is caused by the skin’s natural response to inflammation when melanin-producing cells over-produce, says L’Oréal Paris Consulting Dermatologist, Dr. Gervaise Gerstner.
Prevention: “If there’s an underlying cause like acne, it must first be eliminated for effective results,” says Bank. And don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen and mind your wide-brimmed straw hat—damaging sun rays can significantly kick up and worsen post-inflammation pigmentation.
At-Home Treatment: Consistent, daily (not just when you remember!) use of treatment products is key to scoring visible improvement. The combination of daily sunscreen with topical creams that contain hydroquinone, tretinoin, corticosteroids, glycolic acid or azelaic acid can reap substantial results, says Bank.
In-Office Treatment: Procedures vary by the depth and amount of pigmentation area targeted, and can include lasers like Vbeam ($500-$1500), Fraxel ($500-$1500), Alex TriVantage ($350-$500), Clear & Brilliant ($500), microdermabrasion ($100-$250) and medical-strength bleaching pads, say the experts.
The Cause: Hands off: scrubbing your face too vigorously, washing with too-hot water and even years of alcoholism and over-exposure to sun rays can lead to the red spotting of broken blood vessels, says Bank. Red spots can also be a symptom of rosacea, a red and flushing skin condition in which blood vessels enlarge.
Prevention: “Avoid tanning salons, saunas and other activities that cause blood to rush to the face,” says Bank. Allowing skin to roast unprotected under the sun is another prime trigger, so make sure skin is protected by at least an SPF of 30 daily.
At-Home Treatment: Holding a cold compress on the affected area can minimize the look of broken blood vessels; make sure cold packs are always wrapped in a paper towel or thin cloth so that you don’t risk freezer-burning skin with direct contact. “Applying any face cream that has a high content of niacinamide, vitamin C or K before bed will help, as will changing your diet to provide more of these vitamins,” advises Bank.
In-Office Treatment: Vbeam ($500) is today’s standard laser treatment for red spots, says Gerstner.
The Cause: You can thank those hormones and genetics for melasma. “This condition mostly occurs in women, and is caused by hormone changes due to pregnancy and birth control pills,” says Gerstner. “Most melasma patches appear on the cheeks or around the lips.”
Prevention: Blame the age-old culprit: the sun. Wear a sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater daily, and don a wide-brimmed straw hat if spending extended amounts of time under the rays. Take special care if you notice that melasma runs in your family, as even a touch of sun may trigger an outbreak in the genetically predisposed.
At-Home Treatment: Topical lightening creams that contain hydroquinone, licorice root extract, retinol and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are most effective, says Bank, who adds that diligent use of sunscreen can sometimes even fade mild cases on its own.
In-Office Treatment: Fraxel ($500-$1500) is the preferred laser treatment today, and may be used in conjunction with bleaching pads or peels that contain kojic, glycolic or citric acid ($150-300), say the experts.
The Cause: Usually brown or black in color, moles are caused when melanocytes grow in clusters or clumps. And thank your parents for the gift. “Moles are usually congenital, and you can get new ones until about the age of 40,” says Gerstner.
Prevention: Since moles can turn cancerous, it’s important that you’re screened yearly by a board-certified dermatologist if you have them.
At-Home Treatment: Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do at home that will safely affect change on a mole, though wearing SPF 30 on exposed skin daily will help prevent skin cancer.
In-Office Treatment: “True moles should not be removed by lasers, they should be removed surgically so they can be biopsied,” says Bank. This is a situation where it’s truly better to be safe than sorry.
One of the most obvious markers of youth is a glowing complexion with even skintone. Brown and red spots, and uneven patches can get in the way of that. Try a product that will brighten your skin, but keep in mind that spots are stubborn, and it could take up to six months of consistent use (plus daily sunscreen!) to see results.
“This serum combines skin-brightening ingredients and antioxidants that fade dark spots, post-acne marks, age spots and traces of visual sun damage,” says dermatologist Dr. Gervaise Gerstner. Active ingredients include vitamin B3 and pro-cysteine (an amino acid derivative), as well as vitamin Cg (a form of slow-release Vitamin C).
If you have sensitive skin, try this gentle brightening cream from Philosophy. Formulated with niacinamide, resveratrol, peptides and linoleic acid, the corrector lightens spots without the use of more aggressive ingredients like hydroquinone, which can irritate sensitive types.
This targeted pen spot treatment is ideal for outlying dark spots surrounded by otherwise clear skin. Power antioxidant pomegranate helps skin shed pigmented layers, while willowbark speeds up cell turnover. Squalane and nutmeg kernel oil are included to hydrate and smooth.
Potent brighteners kojic acid, licorice root extract and resveratrol are contained in this formula that also boasts a patented complex of three different variations of hyaluronic acid, which deeply hydrate the skin for prime lightening conditions. Green tea and retinyl palmitate are included as super antioxidants.
Free of silicones, parabens and fragrance, this crystal-clear Kiehl’s serum blends active vitamin C’s brightening capabilities with hydrating white birch extract to increase elasticity and collagen production, as well as peony extract, which works synergistically to reverse pockets of discoloration.
The dual-textured pads offer two options: use the smooth side for daily use, or go with the textured side for a more intense treatment. Made with a blend of natural minerals, the lightening formula exfoliates with extracts of sugar cane, sugar maple, orange, lemon and bilberry, while lactic and glycolic acids speed up cell regeneration. Kombuchka black tea brightens.
Vichy’s concentrate targets the source of melanin production with vitamin Cg, vitamin E and lipo hydroxy acid (LHA), which exfoliates the skin, and speeds up cell renewal rates. For best results, apply the lotion morning and night to the entire face for a complexion-brightening effect.
A lightweight serum that quickly absorbs to a matte finish, this formula contains a prolonged release of vitamin C, which goes to work turning over current pigmentation, and preventing new spots from forming. Vitamin A, E and lemon encourage exfoliation, while essential oils of lavender and marjoram soothe and add a pleasant scent.
This exfoliating cream works while you sleep, using an intense concentration of the brand’s trademark viniferine, a polyphenol found in grapeseed that regulates melanin to reduce dark spots and brighten skin. “We also use glycolic in a smaller molecule for a time-released treatment that is gentler, so that it doesn’t hit all at once and cause redness or irritation,” says Caudalie founder, Mathilde Thomas.
Murad’s serum should send spots scurrying with these heavy-hitters: hydroquinone to fade dark pigment, glycolic acid to rapidly exfoliate dead skin cells, and potent skin lightening hexapeptide-2. Massage a thin layer on skin nightly—and if needed, expect similar results on the backs of hands and chest.
Neova’s complex is formulated with phenylalanine, an amino acid that targets and decreases melanin pigment-making in cells, and prevents future hyperpigmentation from reaching the skin’s surface. Licorice root and sandalwood extracts are included to lighten, and glycerin, squalane and water hydrate without clogging pores.
As another alternative for the hydroquinone-wary, Luminaze’s treatment is based on a natural enzyme of a fungus that breaks down melanin in the bark of a tree found in the Swiss Alps. Double-blind clinical studies claim 29 percent improvement in pigmentation after 31 days of consistent use. To apply, you first pump cream from the left side and smooth of skin, and then repeat with the right side.
Kakadu plum delivers fifty times the vitamin C potency of oranges, and is mixed with other super antioxidants like licorice root extract and black elder flower extract to even skintone, reduce dark spots and add overall glow to the complexion. Bonus? Hydrating peptides plump wrinkles.
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