Regardless of how they got there, dark spots on your skin can be tricky to get rid of. Luckily, there are plenty of over-the-counter products that can help fade those pesky marks over time — as long as you know exactly what to look for.
“Dark spots are increased deposition of pigment under the skin due, mostly to sun exposure,” Dr. Tess Mauricio, a board-certified dermatologist based in Beverly Hills, tells InStyle. But there are a few other reasons why your skin could have hyperpigmentation: Things like acne scars and changes in hormone levels can often be blamed, too.
"Any process that causes inflammation in the skin and irritates the melanocytes (which are the pigment-producing cells in the skin) will produce dark spots or hyperpigmentation on the body," says Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
Since there are so many different anti-aging products on the market that promise to fade dark spots, it can be hard to figure out which ones are actually worth buying. That's why we tapped three dermatologists to find out exactly what ingredients experts recommend looking for in dark spot correctors.
“Any products with antioxidants or ingredients that help speed exfoliation of the skin work to fade dark spots,” Dr. Mauricio says. “Look for vitamin C, alpha arbutin, licorice root extract, hexyl resorcinol, green tea, glycolic acid, and of course, sunscreens/SPF to help reduce the appearance of sunspots or freckles.”
Other common ingredients that help fade dark spots are niacinamide (a.k.a. vitamin B3), kojic acid, lactic acid, and retinol. "Retinol stimulates a quicker renewal of skin cells. When someone uses retinol, the outer layer of the skin is sloughed off and the newer skin underneath is revealed," says Dr. Jaliman. "Lactic acid and glycolic acid are also helpful to exfoliate the dark discoloration. Taking off the top layer of the skin allows other products to penetrate deeper into the skin to help with hyperpigmentation."
Before you start applying a dark spot corrector, there are a few things to remember. "If you have very sensitive skin, you want to be careful with certain ingredients such as retinol and acids," she adds. "You want to start off with [the] lowest strengths possible to make sure your skin can tolerate it."
Instead, people with sensitive skin should look for dark spot correctors made with gentler, less irritating ingredients. "Tranexamic, salicylic, [and] azelaic acids are gentle enough for those with sensitive skin," says Dr. Jared Jagdeo, board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Ever/Body.
And while ingredients like vitamin C are more effective on people with fair skin tones, "those with darker skin tones usually need ingredients such as hydroquinone and retinol," notes Dr. Jaliman.
In March 2020, the FDA made regulatory changes to some types of over-the-counter drugs, so hydroquinone is now only available with a doctor's prescription. As an alternative, Dr. Jagdeo recommends tranexamic acid, salicylic acid, and cysteamine for Black or brown skin. "The ingredients work by blocking melanin production and melanin levels at different points within skin cells," he says.
And even though these types of dark spots are typically harmless, be sure to consult your dermatologist with any concerns. “Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a new pigmentation on your skin is a benign freckle, sun spot, or something more serious like a skin cancer, and a skin biopsy may be needed to get a definitive diagnosis,” adds Dr. Mauricio. “If there are signs of irregularity (uneven coloration, jagged border, and asymmetry) or if your spots are changing, they should be examined by a dermatologist right away.”
With these dermatologists’ tips in mind, we rounded up the best dark spot correctors that you can buy online — including their favorite serums, creams, and peels for treating dark spots, plus customer-loved products that use the active ingredients they recommend.
These are the best dark spot correctors to buy in 2021:
- Best Rated on Amazon: Eva Naturals Vitamin C+ Serum
- Best Drugstore Serum: Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector
- Best With Lactic Acid: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid
- Best With Tranexamic Acid: Murad Environmental Shield Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum
- Dermatologist Pick: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
- Best Face Wash: La Roche-Posay Pigmentclar Cleanser
- Best With Niacinamide: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Dark Spot Serum
- Best With Vitamin C: Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
- Best With Retinol: Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform
- Best With SPF: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Anti-Aging Day Cream
- Best Non-Irritating: Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAl 0.1 Intensive Cream
- Best for Acne-Prone Skin: ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
- Best Night Cream: CeraVe Ultra-Lightweight Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM
- Best Peel Pads: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
- Best Splurge Serum: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
- Best Exfoliator: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
- Best Patches: Peace Out Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots
- Best Multipurpose Option: The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%
- Best Spot Treatment: No7 Laboratories Dark Spot Correcting Booster Serum
- Best Toner: Ole Henriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner
Keep reading to learn more about the best dark spot correctors, including everything from dark spot-fighting night creams to at-home peel pads.
Best Rated on Amazon: Eva Naturals Vitamin C+ Serum
With an average 4.4-star rating across over 28,500 reviews, this dark spot-correcting serum by Eva Naturals is clearly a popular choice among Amazon shoppers. The powerful formula is packed with ingredients like vitamin C, niacinamide, and retinol, which all come recommended by dermatologists for fading dark spots and evening out skin tone. In addition to its anti-aging properties, the serum also boasts hydrating hyaluronic acid and acne-fighting salicylic acid. “I was amazed by the fast results and I feel way more confident with my face and skin,” one customer wrote. “I even cut back on makeup because I don’t have blemishes and dark scars to cover anymore.”
Shop now: $15; amazon.com
Best Drugstore Serum: Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector
You don’t have to spend a fortune to fade dark spots at home, especially with this affordable serum from Neutrogena. With two dermatologist-recommended ingredients for fighting hyperpigmentation (vitamin C and retinol), this serum is a great option for anyone who wants to try out dark spot correctors for the first time. “I’ve used this for at least four years and consider it my secret weapon,” a reviewer wrote. “I purchased it for dark pigmentation spots, but it also clears up small bumps on [my] forehead, keeps pores clearer, and keeps wrinkles at bay.”
Shop now: $18 (Originally $19); amazon.com
Best With Lactic Acid: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid
If you’re looking for a high-quality dark spot corrector, you can’t go wrong with Sunday Riley’s Good Genes treatment. “The lactic acid helps to exfoliate dull, pore-clogging dead skin cells,” says Dr. Jaliman. “Licorice extract may also help diminish the appearance of dark spots associated with acne scarring. It’s great for brightening the skin and diminishing hyperpigmentation.” Plus, the formula contains soothing ingredients like aloe and lemongrass that will nourish your skin.
Shop now: $48–$122; amazon.com or nordstrom.com
Best With Tranexamic Acid: Murad Environmental Shield Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum
This brightening serum from Murad is the upgraded version of its previous dark spot corrector, which was recommended by Dr. Jaliman. It uses a combination of three powerhouse ingredients that fade dark spots and brighten skin: tranexamic acid, glycolic acid, and the brand’s signature resorcinol technology. Shoppers love the light citrusy scent, and many say they’ve already noticed a difference in their hyperpigmentation after a couple of weeks.
Shop now: $72; amazon.com
Dermatologist Pick: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
The SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense serum is on the pricier side, but it comes highly recommended by Dr. Jagdeo: “A lot of clients have seen great success with this product and it’s suitable for all skin tones.” The dermatologist-approved brightening serum uses a powerful combination of niacinamide, kojic acid, and tranexamic acid to improve the appearance of dark spots and discoloration. It also contains a synthetic acid called HEPES that helps exfoliate dead skin.
Shop now: $98; dermstore.com
Best Face Wash: La Roche-Posay Pigmentclar Cleanser
With this brightening cleanser from La Roche-Posay, you can target dark spots in nearly every step of your skincare routine. Using a derivative of salicylic acid called lipo-hydroxy acid, the foaming face wash will gently exfoliate and even out skin tone. “You can definitely tell the brightening effect this has on skin,” said a customer. “I have some dark spots from a chemical burn and repetitive use of this has really faded them. Not to mention it makes your face feel very clean without feeling too dry.”
Shop now: $25; amazon.com
Best With Niacinamide: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Dark Spot Serum
First Aid Beauty’s gentle niacinamide serum is another great option to even out your skin tone. Customers say they’re “blown away” by how quickly it works, with multiple people calling it their new “holy grail.” One wrote: “This serum is lightweight, hydrating, and feels amazing on the skin. It’s made my skin look brighter and overall more even.” We also love that the brand gives back: Just a few months ago, First Aid Beauty paid off nearly $1.3 million of student loan debt through its FAB AID initiative.
Shop now: $42; sephora.com
Best With Vitamin C: Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
This editor- and expert-approved serum by Mad Hippie is another favorite of Dr. Jaliman’s. It uses vitamins C and E to make dark spots appear less noticeable and doesn’t contain any fragrance or parabens. The antioxidant-rich formula is also packed with hyaluronic acid, konjac root powder, and chamomile extract to improve your skin’s complexion. Customers say their skin has “never looked better,” and many call it the best vitamin C serum they’ve ever used.
Shop now: $34; ulta.com
Best With Retinol: Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform
In addition to encapsulated retinol (which is a gentler version), this lightweight serum from Shani Darden utilizes lactic acid and fruit extracts to correct dark spots. “Retinols and antioxidants work together to help protect skin cells from UV damage and stimulate the skin’s cells to repair and provide an overall more even skin tone and youthful appearance,” adds Dr. Mauricio.
Shop now: $30–$88; sephora.com
Best With SPF: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Bright Reveal Anti-Aging Day Cream
Using glycolic acid, vitamin C, and pro-retinol, L’Oréal’s brightening moisturizer will correct existing dark spots, while the SPF 30 will prevent more from popping up. Shoppers say their previously dull skin looks brighter and smoother after just a few applications. “After using this product for a week, I feel and see the difference,” said one customer. “Gone are the patchy dry spots around the eyebrow area and hello glowing skin.” While many skincare products with vitamin C can have an unpleasant scent, reviewers rave about this cream’s subtle citrus fragrance.
Shop now: $17 (Originally $18); amazon.com
Best Non-Irritating: Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAl 0.1 Intensive Cream
Avène’s fragrance-free cream will hydrate your skin and get rid of dark spots at the same time. It’s formulated with retinaldehyde, a form of retinol that’s often gentler and more effective, along with the brand’s signature thermal spring water to soothe skin. Hundreds of Amazon customers praise its effectiveness; some people pointed out that it doesn’t cause irritation. “After one to two weeks, I noticed a dramatic difference in my skin texture,” one wrote. “My skin was soft, smooth, a lot of my age spots and wrinkles virtually disappeared or began to fade.”
Shop now: $69; amazon.com
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
ProactivMD’s gel uses adapalene to treat existing breakouts and help get rid of dark spots that linger once the pimples are gone, making it great for acne-prone skin. It’s a type of retinol that was previously available by prescription only, but now you can buy it over the counter — and even better, right on Amazon. “The retinol gel smooths skin texture, minimizes acne breakouts, and evens skin tone to eliminate dark spots at the source,” says Dr. Mauricio.
Shop now: $36; amazon.com
Best Night Cream: CeraVe Ultra-Lightweight Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM
When it comes to removing dark spots, you aren’t limited to just serums and treatments. A gentle fragrance-free formula like CeraVe’s lightweight lotion can get the job done without irritating your skin. “This moisturizer is great because it has three types of ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. All [are] very good ingredients, which will help with not just dark spots but fine lines and wrinkles as well,” Dr. Jaliman says.
Shop now: $16, ulta.com
Best Peel Pads: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
These at-home peel pads from Dr. Dennis Gross are a favorite of shoppers who love how well they visibly improve their complexion. The two-step treatment gives your skin an extra-strength dose of AHAs, BHAs, and retinol to target dark spots, fine lines, large pores, and more, while soothing ingredients like chamomile and green tea prevent inflammation and protect the skin. “These pads literally wipe my dark spots and fine lines away,” wrote a reviewer. “It’s pretty impressive. It also gives my skin an overall brighter and more even complexion. I no longer go for facials or use any other masks.”
Shop now: $17–$150; amazon.com
Best Splurge Serum: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
If you’re willing to splurge on a dark spot corrector, opt for this popular SkinCeuticals anti-aging serum with a perfect five-star rating. The antioxidant-rich formula has vitamins C and E and ferulic acid to brighten skin and stop dark spots from appearing. With continued use, you’ll find that wrinkles are less noticeable and skin tone is more even. “This stuff is worth its weight in gold,” wrote a customer. “It does what it promises. My dark acne scars are fading and those really stubborn ones that are years and years old are also better.”
Shop now: $166; dermstore.com
Best Exfoliator: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
This Drunk Elephant night serum is one of Sephora’s best-selling dark spot treatments — and it has an impressive 214,300 “loves” from shoppers who call it a “miracle serum.” Thanks to a handful of derm-approved ingredients that target dark spots (like glycolic and lactic acids), the AHA/BHA serum will improve your skin’s tone and texture. Because it contains simple ingredients that are considered clean and safe, the product has even earned the “Clean at Sephora” seal.
Shop now: $90; sephora.com
Best Patches: Peace Out Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots
The brand loved for its pimple patches and pore strips also makes microneedling dots that are specially designed to fade dark spots. Each sticker contains niacinamide and licorice extract, which dermatologists say are two ingredients that actually help reduce discoloration. Even though they work best when left on overnight, customers love that they’re nearly invisible, so they can choose to wear them during the day, too. “These have been super helpful at lightening up my dark spots from picking at my acne. My skin looked really blotchy before using these, but now it’s looking much more even and soft,” wrote a shopper.
Shop now: $28; sephora.com
Best Multipurpose Option: The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%
Even derms love The Ordinary’s affordable skincare products. This lightweight formula uses azelaic acid, which Dr. Mauricio loves for its “multitasking abilities” — plus, the ingredient is gentler on skin than other acids. “This inexpensive solution helps with acne, skin texture, and skin discoloration and is safe to use for long term maintenance of dark spots,” she adds.
Shop now: $8; sephora.com
Best Spot Treatment: No7 Laboratories Dark Spot Correcting Booster Serum
This dark spot corrector from No7 is formulated with the brand’s special lightening complex (a combination of vitamin C, emblica, and sophora) that is “clinically proven to improve the appearance of dark spots, age spots, and sun spots,” according to Dr. Mauricio. And since it’s a spot treatment, you can specifically target areas with hyperpigmentation without having to apply it to your entire face.
Shop now: $40; ulta.com
Best Toner: Ole Henriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner
This refreshing toner by Ole Henriksen uses two types of AHAs (glycolic and lactic acid) and licorice root to help fade dark spots and even skin tone. After cleansing, apply the toner to your skin with a cotton pad. “I tried so many products to help against dark spots and nothing ever did the trick until I started using this,” said one customer. “This is a holy grail and staple in my everyday skincare routine.”
Shop now: $16–$34; sephora.com
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