Before diving into treatments, it’s important to understand the different types of dark spots. There is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which refers to a dark mark left behind by a previous pimple that was inflamed. This is due to the skin over producing melanin in response to the damage.
There is also melasma, which overwhelmingly affects women. This refers to brown or blue-ish gray spots or patches on the skin. It is typically due to hormonal fluctuations, and commonly affects pregnant women. Birth control pills and other hormonal medication may also cause melasma.
Lastly, there are sun spots (also known as age spots or liver spots). These tan, brown, or black marks are caused by an overproduction of melanin in response to UV exposure and skin aging.
In some cases, dark spots may fade on their own, although treatments can speed up the process (and increase the likelihood of these marks fully fading). PIH will typically go away on its own within anywhere from three to 24 months. Melasma may go away on its own in about three months, although in some instances it may be permanent if not treated. Sun spots are typically more stubborn. They may fade in about six to 12 months, but like melasma, they may be permanent without treatment.
There are a few different professional treatments and prescription medications that can be used to treat dark spots. A dermatologist may prescribe a hydroquinone topical cream or a prescription-strength retinoid to help fade these dark spots. They may also recommend an in-office professional treatment, such as a chemical peel, laser treatment, or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment.
If you want to try to fade dark spots with over-the-counter products, there are a few ingredients you’ll want to consider adding to your routine. Vitamin C serums, OTC retinoids, and exfoliants containing alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid) are considered some of the best products for evening skin tone and getting rid of dark spots.
All of these ingredients can be used in the same routine. You would just need to apply them at different times. For example, you might use a vitamin C serum in the morning, and alternate using a retinoid and exfoliant at night. In addition to those ingredients, serums and treatments containing azelaic acid and licorice extract may also help diminish the appearance of these spots.