Dark spots on the skin can become a source of ongoing frustration and sometimes embarrassment. This article considers why dark spots may have developed on your skin and the best approaches to covering them up or eliminating them altogether.
Why dark spots on the skin occur
There are lots of reasons why your skin may develop dark spots. These can include medical conditions such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)1. Melasma is a common skin disorder; although its pathogenesis is unconfirmed, it is likely to be linked with overexposure to the sun, leading to higher melanin production in the skin2.
PIH is also reasonably common, though it is particularly prevalent in darker skin types3. This occurs when the skin has been inflamed or injured, which can cause alterations to pigmentation3. It is also noted as a side effect of other conditions, such as acne and eczema3.
Aside from medical conditions, other causes of dark spots4 include:
Healing of a wound caused by a cut, burn, insect bite, etc.
Chemical products (e.g., for skin or hair) irritate your skin
A pimple or patch of acne clears
Hormonal changes, for example, during pregnancy or menopause
Overexposure to the sun
It is important for you to consider how your dark spot has been caused so that you can treat it in the best way possible. For example, if it may be a side effect of regular medication that you are taking, it is critical that you do not simply stop taking the drug. If you find yourself in that situation, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. However, if it’s because you’re using a new face serum for cleansing, perhaps try not using it for a while and see if the dark spots clear up by themselves.
Whatever the cause, it is essential that the reason is treated. That way, the dark spots will fade over time. However, if you only cover up and never treat, they will never go away completely.
Options for covering dark spots on the skin
Dark spots on the skin will typically fade by themselves. However, this may be a very long process. Once you stop the root cause of the dark spots, they ordinarily disappear somewhere between six and twelve months later. However, if they are deeper in your skin or covering a wider area, they may take years to fade away completely4. Therefore, you might consider using sunscreen or other over-the-counter products to cover them while they disappear.
Sunscreen is probably the most important product to own and use if you suffer from dark spots on your skin. Not only does it help to prevent new dark spots from developing, but it can also encourage existing ones to fade4.
You should make sure that your sunscreen offers all of the following benefits4:
SPF 30: See this as the absolute minimum; a higher SPF is better.
Active ingredients: Either one or both of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Broad-spectrum protection: This will keep you covered for different intensities and forms of solar radiation (UVA and UVB).
Non-comedogenic: This means that it won’t block pores, so it is important if you are applying daily, particularly if you have oily skin.
You may find success with over-the-counter (OTC) products, thereby avoiding the need to seek a prescription from your doctor. These can help fade dark spots quicker and even out your skin tone to make them less noticeable. Many will even have an SPF value, meaning that they can be both a toning product and sunscreen in one.
If choosing this option, make sure that your product contains at least one of the following active ingredients4:
Vitamin C: This can improve the skin’s elasticity and help it repair naturally5.
Kojic acid: A chemical option that is known for its excellent ability to whiten skin6.
Glycolic acid: This inhibits melanin synthesis in skin cells, meaning that darker pigmentation is avoided7.
Retinol: Perhaps the most effective natural form of vitamin A, retinol helps to cause cell division in the skin, which generates natural exfoliation and regeneration, reducing unwanted dark blemishes5. As a sidenote, retinol also encourages collagen production, meaning that wrinkles are reduced.
Azelaic acid: Typically used in acne treatment, this clears your pores and prevents blemishes from growing8.
Natural ingredients - “including azelaic acid, soy, lignin peroxidase, ascorbic acid iontophoresis, arbutin, ellagic acid, licorice extracts, niacinamide, and mulberry”9 - have also demonstrated great potential in minimizing dark spots on the skin.
Simple things to do
As well as applying specific products, there are lifestyle options that you can make to maintain skin health and reduce the risk and spread of dark spots. These include10:
Maintain your skincare routine. Ensure that you stick to a solid skincare routine in terms of moisturizing and hydrating. If possible, avoid overapplication of make-up products as these may cause damage to your skin.
Lead a healthy lifestyle. Exercising regularly will help to keep your skin hydrated. Also, stopping smoking will improve skin health, as will consuming less alcohol.
Eat a balanced diet. Make sure that you drink enough water to keep your whole body (including your skin) hydrated. Also, by eating a sensible balance of vitamins and minerals, you will be taking on many nutrients required for healthy skin.
Things to watch out for when covering dark spots on the skin
Some products may contain chemicals that are harmful to the skin, including risks that massively outweigh the benefits in terms of covering dark spots. For example, in some instances, with imported products, these chemicals may not even be listed4, so you need to be careful. In addition, researchers have found trace amounts of mercury and steroids in some skin whitening products, which can lead to outbreaks of pimples, an intense rash, or potentially even permanent discoloration4.
You also need to be careful that your skin doesn’t become too light, thereby still seeming out of place with the rest of your appearance11. Overuse of skin whitening products can also lead to thinning of the skin and blood vessels becoming visible11. In extreme cases, there is a risk of kidney, liver, or nerve damage, or newborn baby abnormalities (if you are pregnant while using the product)11. However rare these issues may be, it’s still vital to speak with your doctor if you are at all concerned.
Finally, liquid bleach should never be applied to skin4, so make sure that your products don’t contain this toxic chemical.
Still need help?
If these methods aren’t working for you, seek professional advice from a dermatologist who has the knowledge and experience to combine treatments safely4. This will help you to obtain the best results without putting your health at further risk.
Dark spots in the skin can occur for a variety of reasons. This commonly includes overexposure to the sun, hormonal changes, and irritation caused by chemical products. Sunscreen is your first defense against discoloration and damage to the skin as it is both preventative and curative. Additionally, over-the-counter products can potentially help you in evening out your skin tone and cover dark spots while they fade.
There are some potential risks associated with products that lighten the skin, so it is essential to keep your doctor informed and seek professional advice if you have any doubts or experience side effects.