Behold! One of the earliest signs of aging: hyper-pigmentation. When—in the folly of youth—you sit bare-faced in the sun, giving your complexion a golden glow, those rays trigger a sinister chain reaction a few layers below. This sun damage accumulates over time underneath the skin’s surface every time you skip the SPF. Then, seemingly overnight, blotches emerge, from freckles to sun spots, dark patches and uneven skin tone. But it starts the same way. Ultraviolet rays make melanocytes, your skin’s pigment-producing cells, malfunction. The results can be difficult to camouflage and hard to treat. “Dark pigment can age the skin by up to 15 years,” says Dr. Adam Geyer, a dermatologist and Kiehl’s product-development consultant. Even if you faithfully apply sunscreen, you’re still at risk for the odd splotch: Injuries to the skin from acne and even hormonal fl uctuations resulting from birth control or pregnancy can make your melanocytes act up.
“The riskier the treatment, the greater potential for reward, ” says Geyer. “It’s a tricky balance in terms of how deep you go.” In the dermatologist’s office, you’ll find potent chemical peels, cryotherapies, laser light and fractional resurfacing treatments that target excess pigment by penetrating deep to break up bits of blotch. The strongest over-the-counter ingredient is hydroquinone , available in 2-percent concentrations, but it divides dermatologists. It can irritate, and with extended use it may even darken spots; it shouldn’t be used for more than three months. But in most cases, the results are dramatic. Other brightening remedies that often show results include retinoid creams (although they can increase sun sensitivity) and exfoliation methods like microdermabrasion or prepackaged alpha- and beta-hydroxy-acid peels, which slough off dead cells. Skin specialists are now working on new ways to go even deeper by blocking tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for producing pigment in the first place. And natural ingredients are taking centre stage: Look for formulas with hydrating white birch, nutritive peony extract, brightening bearberry extract and antioxidant-rich kojic acid.
“The best thing you can do for your skin is to find a sunscreen you love and wear it 365 days a year,” says Geyer. It’ll prevent new spots from surfacing and stop existing ones in their tracks. Pick a lightweight, non-greasy, broad-spectrum block and never leave home without it.
Five top picks for targeted blotch busting
1. Vitamin-packed pick: Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, $54
Potent activated C — “the iPhone 5 of vitamin C,” says dermatologist Adam Geyer — clarifies, brightens and blocks tyrosinase.
2. For natural radiance: L’Oreal Youth Code Dark Spot Correcting & Illuminating Serum Corrector, $30
This magic eraser combines protective amino acids and B vitamins to promote cell turnover and support skin’s natural barrier.
3. To brighten up: Strivectin-ev Get Even Brightening Serum, $99
This concentrated serum with extracts of willow bark and pomegranate helps new cells reach the skin’s surface to remove stubborn spots.
4. Hydrate and clarify: Estée Lauder Cyberwhite Brilliant Cells Brightening Moisture Cream, $60
A unique glucosamine-licorice blend helps skin retain moisture and brightens skin tone.
5. A gentle perfector: Vichy Proeven Daily Dark Spot Corrector, $44.
The best pick for sensitive skin! With iridescent mother-of-pearl, vitamins and exfoliators, this cream helps regulate skin’s melanin production to reveal a luminous glow and flawless complexion .