However, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this ingredient. (Though it’s often referred to as a “bleaching” agent, hydroquinone does not in fact bleach the skin. It inhibits the pigment-forming enzyme tyrosinase, thereby keeping new cells from darkening.) Research showed the benzene derivative, which the European Union banned for cosmetic use in 2001, could be carcinogenic in rodents — though some experts say extrapolating those results for humans is too big a leap.
Hydroquinone has also been linked to the development of a disorder called ochronosis, which can actually lead to more hyperpigmentation instead of less. Even though Dr. Gohara asserts that this is much more common in Africa and not so much in the United States, she recommends using hydroquinone for shorter periods of time in order to lower the overall risk of developing ochronosis.
Gohara says that retinoids — like prescription tretinoin and over-the-counter retinols — are also great for fading spots since they block the transport of melanin to epidermal cells and lower the activity of melanocytes. For an effective and relatively inexpensive retinol option, Jenny recommends Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Night Serum, which can be found at drugstores.
Alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic, also reduce the appearance of dark spots, by increasing skin cell turnover to slough away excess surface pigment. Michelle uses Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel to help exfoliate her skin and eliminate discoloration.
Gohara also recommends using a product with Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid. The potent antioxidant helps interrupt melanin formation. “I put on the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic serum, about five or six drops on my face and neck, under my sunscreen each morning,” says Jenny. “Every time we interview a dermatologist, they say they use it, so I have followed their lead.”
The Best In-Office Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
While the ease of at-home products is appealing for many, in-office treatments are certainly the quickest and most effective course of action when it comes to diminishing dark spots. But before you get any treatment, you should tell your doctor your full family history to make sure you don’t risk any adverse side effects. “Ethnicity, or the culture you identify with, does not confer skin type,” explains Gohara. “I could culturally identify as Black, but have really light skin. But if one of your parents has darker skin, you could have a tendency, even with light skin, to get post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”