There are a zillion creams that claim to brighten skin—but just a handful of ingredients that actually deliver results.
1. In your 20s and 30s, start using a serum with licorice, soy, and/or vitamin C to prevent excess pigment that’s already under your skin from surfacing and to take down new spots. Try Aveeno Positively Radiant Intensive Night Cream with unfermented soy, which is the most effective form of the ingredient, says Jeannette Graf, a dermatologist in New York City.
2. To treat stubborn discoloration, antioxidant ellagic acid “fades spots on all skin tones and has been shown to lighten as well as prescription hydroquinone when paired with salicylic acid,” says Vivian Bucay, a dermatologist in San Antonio.
contains both acids.
3. If you’re not already using dermatologist-favorite retinol to smooth lines, start incorporating it into your routine to lighten dark spots—it’s pretty brilliant at that, too. RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream won’t cause redness or peeling.
4. Without religious sunscreen use, this is all an exercise in futility. The sun’s UV rays trigger new pigment production—and so do visible light and infrared light, mounting research suggests. Philosophy Ultimate Miracle Worker Multi-Rejuvenating Cream SPF 30 protects against all three types of radiation.
There’s currently a big fat question mark surrounding hydroquinone, a skin lightener that’s been around longer than Zendaya and Taylor Swift have been alive, combined.
What we know for sure: It fades dark spots faster than anything else (prescription-strength versions work in as little as eight weeks).
Also fact: It’s banned in Europe, and the FDA is reviewing its safety. Studies have shown it may act as a carcinogen when ingested by rats.
What we don’t know: What that means for us. Hydroquinone’s safety for non-rats (who aren’t eating it) hasn’t been definitively proven or disproven.
Most dermatologists feel it’s safe—with caveats: “You can’t use it if you’re pregnant, and you should always use the smallest amount for the least amount of time possible,” says Jill Weinstein, a dermatologist in Chicago. Prescription azelaic acid is considered safe to use during pregnancy: “It can fade dark spots in four to six months,” says Weinstein.
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