Sure, freckles were cute when you were a kid, but as you age, they only make you look older. In fact, a 2006 study conducted at the Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology in Austria showed that uneven skin tone can add as much as 20 years to someone's appearance. "Whether a woman is 17 or 70, the contrast of skin tone plays a significant role in the way her age, beauty, and health is perceived," said study co-author Dr. Bernhard Fink.
Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to even out speckled skin. From products to home remedies to dermatologist treatments, here's how to lighten your dark spots and brighten your skin tone overall. You'll look younger in no time.
Identify What's Causing Your Spots
Not all hyperpigmentation is created equal, and you need to understand the cause of your spot to treat it correctly. The main culprits: sun exposure, hormonal changes, scars, and rashes.
If you have freckles across your cheeks, nose, chest, and hands, those are generally the result of sun exposure. "UV rays trigger your cells to produce excess melanin, and it shows up as dark spots," explains Miami dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD.
If you have clusters of spots on your forehead and the sides of your cheeks, it's most likely a condition called Melasma. "It's the result of hormonal changes that trigger pigmentation in the cells," explains New York City dermatologist Bruce Katz, MD.
"Other times, hyperpigmentation can be caused by acne breakouts or even darkening from rashes," says Katz.
Add a Brightening Product to Your Regimen
The easiest thing you can do to treat all types of hyperpigmentation is to add a brightening serum to your regimen. Apply it both day and night after cleansing and underneath your moisturizer. Try Garnier Nutritioniste Skin Renew Dark Spot Corrector (pictured), $16.99, which contains vitamin C. It's gentle enough that it won't irritate your skin, and dark spots will begin to fade in four weeks. For even more intensive brightening, try Specific Beauty Dermatologist Strength Dark Spot Corrector Pads, $59.99. They were formulated by Woolery-Lloyd and contain a blend of Kojic acid, Arbutin, and bearberry extract to even skin tone.
Lightening dark spots isn't easy, so unfortunately you can't expect miracles from the ingredients you source from your kitchen. However, there are a number of natural ingredients that do work. "Grapeseed extract has been proven in clinical studies to decrease pigmentation and also decrease your skin's production of pigmentation when exposed to the sun," says Woolery-Lloyd. She suggests applying a few drops topically or using it as the base for an at-home scrub. Licorice, soy, bearberry, and pomegranate are also effective brighteners. As with any treatment, use these home remedies for 12 weeks to see full results.
Whatever you do, stay away from lemons and lemon juice. "Lemon can cause hyperpigmentation," says Woolery-Lloyd. "It's a condition called phytophotodermatitis. If you've been making lemonade outside, and you have the lemon resin on your hands, it can cause burning and blisters that lead to dark spots."
Get A Prescription From Your Dermatologist
When other products and home remedies aren't working, consult your dermatologist. "Prescription-strength hydroquinone is the gold standard for lightening dark spots," says Katz. "But we don't want patients to use it for too long — a few months at most." Overuse of hydroquinone can actually lead to even darker pigmentation — there's a rebound effect. So if you choose to go the prescription route, follow your doctor's instructions carefully.
Break Out The Big Guns
For seriously pesky dark spots, dermatologists recommend lasers. "For sun spots, we use the Q-switched ruby or alexandrite laser," says Katz. "There will be a little scab, but it goes away in a few days." Results are fast, and your dermatologist can target spots on your face, as well as your neck, chest, and hands — as long as the spots aren't Melasma, which can get worse after a laser treatment. These procedures can cost $400 or more, but if you have an important event — or an especially ugly spot — it might be worth the splurge.
Shield Your Skin From The Sun
All the lightening ingredients and lasers in the world won't do a lick of good if you're not wearing SPF. "Nothing is as effective as prevention," says Katz. Woolery-Lloyd agrees: "Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen," she says. "And I always recommend an SPF of at least 30 because no one puts on as much sunscreen as they should." The general rule of thumb is to apply a teaspoon for your face and reapply every two hours. Plus, don't skimp in the winter. UVA rays remain the same all year long, and are just as damaging to your skin.