Where does skin pigmentation come from and how can you send it packing? The best skincare for pigmentation is the best starting point. Here’s exactly what to buy

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Few of us would object to a smattering of freckles across the nose or a single Marilyn Monroe-style beauty mark that has been there our entire lives. But when dark spots and patches start cropping up willy-nilly on our face (and hands, and body) it bothers us – and there’s a scientific reason why.

While most pigmentation is harmless, our brain registers it as a negative.

"Our brains are programmed to perceive an even ‘canvas’ of skin as more pleasing to look at than one with marks,” says dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. The theory is that our caveman instincts associate discolouration and textural imperfections with declining health and advancing age and therefore strength. Because of that, says Bunting, “studies have shown that we think an uneven skin tone is as ageing as lines or wrinkles."

It can affect any skin tone and skin type and make a dent in our confidence. Author and TV personality Kate Ferdinand took to Instagram to share her experience, writing: "I always feel so insecure about it and it really does get me down, I try to cover it at all costs." Her followers were quick to share their experiences, writing: "I’m so going through this right now" and "I have this and I really worry what people will think."

Why do brown spots and skin pigmentation or, to give it its correct medical term, hyperpigmentation - i.e. melanin that’s gone into overdrive – come from and which skincare can successfully treat pigmentation? Let's dive in

What causes skin pigmentation?

1. The sun - even on cloudy days

The more you expose your skin to the sun, the more damage your cells sustain and the less efficient they become at protecting, repairing and renewing themselves. One very visible sign of this is dark blotches instead of a smooth, all-over tan: “This is sun damage, and it’s the most common cause of hyperpigmentation,” says Dr Amiee Vyas. “It can lie in wait under the surface of the skin from a young age and comes to the surface as you get older, sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once.”

Sun damage is cumulative over your lifetime and is caused by UVA rays that are present even on cloudy days and in winter months. So the more outdoorsy you are and the more you’ve cultivated a non-fake tan in your teens and twenties, the more you should brace for blotches when you hit your thirties and forties.

2. Inflammation – whenever your skin has been ‘injured’

Any kind of injury to the skin such as bites, ingrown hairs, eczema and aggressive skincare can give rise to a dark mark, thanks to a surge of melanin to the area. Inflammation stimulates melanocytes, the cells that create melanin. It can last for weeks, months or even longer. Dr Vyas says this is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), and the most common ‘injury’ is acne. PIH is most common or visible in darker skin tones and those than tan very easily, and Dr Bunting flags that the colour will vary depending on your complexion: "In very fair skin, PIH tends to be more red-toned whereas in darker skin types the spots tend towards brown."

3. Hormonal changes such as pregnancy and the Pill

Melasma can strike at times of hormonal upheaval such as menopause, puberty, when you start the pill, during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. It manifests as much larger darkened areas than regular brown spots, often in a ‘butterfly shape’ over the forehead and nose, or on the top lip. It can disappear as suddenly as it has appeared but can also be very stubborn.

4. Illness and medication

“Sometimes illness may cause pigmentation, and some drugs can induce it as well,” says Vyas. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen), antimalarials and psychotropic drugs (such as Prozac) are some of them. HRT (a hormone-based treatment) can also cause pigment lesions, particularly in those with darker skin tones; “think 3 on the Fitzpatrick scale (olive) or higher,” says oculoplastic surgeon Dr Maryam Zamani.

5. The wrong skincare and treatments

Skincare as well as professional and clinical skincare treatments, if not chosen and administered carefully, can cause inflammation that can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It’s why it’s advisable to always choose a very experienced therapist or doctor if you’re going to have your brown marks or melasma treated professionally.

Energy or heat-based devices in particular, such as radiofrequency devices or lasers, can make hyperpigmentation and particularly melasma worse. Many lasers are not advisable for treatment of pigmentation in darker skin tones, which are particularly prone to PIH

How to prevent pigmentation

1. Exfoliate regularly

"Healthy, optimally functioning skin is essential for preventing the formation of dark spots, uneven patches and dullness, as it will empower skin to do its own preventative and repair work,” says Dr Vyas. Not only that but your pigment-treating skincare has more chance of getting where it needs to go.

Incorporate an exfoliating acid in your skincare routine, she says, one that doesn’t irritate your skin, or you may actually set off pigmentation. “Glycolic acid is very effective and stimulates deep down into the skin, but if it ‘bites’, you’re better off with the gentler and deeply hydrating lactic acid. For very sensitive skins and those who need to ease themselves in carefully so as not to risk PIH, including those with darker skin tones, try malic acid or polyhydroxy acids,” says Vyas.. We rate Dermalogica Daily Milkfoliant, £59.

2. Nourish to protect your skin barrier 

“For strong, self-reliant skin that can cope effectively with strong, problem-solving actives, choose bland (unscented and frills-free) cleansers [see our picks of cleansers for sensitive skin]and moisturisers with deep-hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid alongside ceramides to seal in the moisture and reinforce the skin’s protective barrier,” says Dr Vyas. We love Glossier After Baume, £25

3. Protect - sun cream every day

Daily high-SPF UV protection throughout the year is simply non-negotiable if you want to prevent, treat or diminish hyperpigmentation,” says Dr Vyas. And that doesn’t just go for sun-damaged induced brown spots and discolouration. “Any UV exposure will worsen the effects of inflammatory hyperpigmentation and make the marks worse. So even if your pigmentation is due mainly due to trauma or acne, a broad-spectrum SPF50 sunscreen is essential,” says Dr Bunting. The same goes for melasma: the cause is hormonal, but any dose of UV light will entrench it further and make it look worse. So finding the best everyday SPF is key. 

How to treat and minimise pigmentation with skincare

Let’s be honest: pigmentation marks are among the most difficult-to-treat skin complaints with creams and serums so seeing a specialist is advised. Pigmentation is a complex issue that reaches deep into the skin. So for very dramatic results, you may need to look into professional procedures such as chemical peels, laser resurfacing or some carefully selected heat-based treatments such as Morpheus 8.

Melasma requires quite a different approach than other types of pigmentation, while there’s no point treating pigmented acne marks without dealing with the acne first. GTG editorial director Victoria Woodhall saw pigmentation specialist Dr Fiona McCarthy, a specialist at getharley.com for her melasma – read our report.

Is there a ‘best skincare ingredient’ for hyperpigmentation?

There are many ingredients to treat pigmentation and despite the popularity of single ingredient-led skincare, there’s no stand-alone performer (although as mentioned SPF should be on your non-negotiable list).

You need a combination approach. “Pigmentation forms through a number of different pathways and can only successfully be treated with a complex of ingredients that address all of these,” says Dr Bunting.

Some ingredients prevent pigmentation cells being generated, others break up the pigmentation that’s already there by exfoliating it away, yet others prevent pigment cells migrating to the skin’s surface. The more pigment pathways you interrupt, the better the result, says Dr Bunting.

Whatever type of pigmentation you have, you need a blend of these actives.

Preventing hyperpigmentation: skincare ingredients to know

Tyrosinase inhibitors to stop melanin production

Some active ingredients work by interrupting an enzyme called tyrosinase, which stimulates the production of melanin (brown pigment) in the skin. They are known as tyrosinase inhibitors and they basically put the brakes on brown patches forming in the first place. They should be part of any successful pigment or melasma-suppressing skincare, whether your hyperpigmentation is already visible or you want to try and prevent the dark patches lurking under the skin surface from making an appearance.

  • Hydroquinone is probably the best-proven tyrosinase inhibitor, but it makes the skin more prone to sun damage while you are using it and may be carcinogenic if used incorrectly, so is only available on prescription in the UK.
  • Arbutin (also often listed and mulberry or bearberry extract), kojic acid, licorice root, hexylresorcinol, azelaic acid and tranexamic acid are viable alternatives is cosmetic skincare.
  • Cysteamine is a new tyrosinase inhibitor that skin doctors such as Dr Sophie Shotter are excited about. It also inhibits peroxidase, which is another enzyme in the melanin production pathway, so it’s doubly effective and, says Shotter, clinical studies show it’s at least as effective as gold-standard hydroquinone, but without the latter’s drawbacks.
  • L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and retinol (vitamin A) also appear to have tyrosinase-inhibiting properties, alongside helping to break up the existing pigment.

Acids, enzymes and retinoids: ingredients that break up hyperpigmentation

Other ingredients (again, you’ll need them for treating any type of pigmentation), help get rid of existing brown spots, either by sloughing them away (using exfoliating acids - AHAs such as glycolic and lactic acid, or exfoliating enzymes such as bromelain and papain) or pushing out pigmented cells and replacing them with bright new ones (retinoids).

Niacinamide, peptides, antioxidants and other pigment busters

Vitamin C and certain peptides help fade pigmentation by regulating melanin production, niacinamide blocks the transfer of melanin cells to the skin surface, and some powerful antioxidants such as green tea and glucosamine help protect from free radical damage and inflammation and have tyrosinase-inhibiting properties.

What the experts use to treat hyperpigmentation

“I love the combination of a retinoid, vitamin C, niacinamide and azelaic acid,” says Dr Bunting, who uses it in her own Dr Sam’s skincare range. In her medical practice, she likes to “rotate through different tyrosinase inhibitors over the course of the year.

“Hydroquinone is often used when a patient wants their skin to be at its best, for a wedding for example. And then we’ll use something like arbutin for the colder months when there is less chance of UV damage.” She combines this with antioxidants, exfoliants, and broad-spectrum sunscreens.

Paula Begoun, the woman behind evidence-based skincare brand Paula’s Choice, favours two brightening ingredient combos (safe for all skin tones). “Niacinamide plus glucosamine is backed by impressive research showing its ability to alleviate the appearance of uneven skin tone and redness,” she says. Meanwhile, “tranexamic acid plus niacinamide is a research-supported combination for targeting stubborn, patchy discolourations.”

Skincare the experts use for melasma

Melasma is a particularly hardy, deep-rooted form of pigmentation that is very hard to treat with skincare alone, but some products can make a dent in it if used consistently. Dermatologist Dr Emma Craythorne quotes clinical studies that show roughly 50 per cent improvement in melasma patches when a concentration of four per cent niacinamide (a level widely available in cosmetics) is used. Niacinamide is also a calming anti-inflammatory, which is important for melasma as it’s associated with inflammation as well as hormonal fluctuations.

Dr Craythorne also loves azelaic acid, which is an anti-inflammatory agent and tyrosinase inhibitor. “It’s shown in randomised trials to be more effective than 2% hydroquinone,” she says. But to get the strength used in the trials (20 per cent) you’d need a prescription. The highest level you can get in cosmetics is 10 per cent, which can still be effective over a longer period of time (think four to six months). Azelaic is a gentle chemical exfoliant as well, safe for treating acne and post-inflammatory pigmentation in all skin tones.

Cysteamine is the new kid on the block for melasma. “It’s a great option and so much less aggressive than other topical melasma treatments,” says Dr Shotter. It’s not perfect, though: “Melasma is particularly stubborn - it’s not JUST pigment, but also has a vascular component and is often hormonally driven,” says Dr Shotter. “I like to combine a topical such as cysteamine with oral tranexamic acid, which has excellent evidence for working synergistically, and professional peels.”

Why does pigmentation come back?

If you manage to successfully lessen your brown marks with potent skincare or expensive professional treatments and follow your achievement by stepping out into the sun, the pigmentation will come back in a flash – likely worse than ever before. “Skin has a memory,” says Dr Zamani. So if you reintroduce it to the trigger that set off the pigmentation, it will send in the troops at speed. “It takes many, many skin cycles (one cycle is two months) of suppressing and preventing melanin formation to wipe this memory from skin’s ‘brain’; you’re looking at least a year.”

Why sunscreen is THE non-negotiable pigmentation treatment

Even then, Dr Zamani says, “certain types of pigmentation can recur despite your best efforts. Pigmentation is a bit like grey hair: once you’ve got it, it’s not really going to go away.” That’s just the reality of it, and the reason why a high-quality SPF is the most important pigmentation- buster about. Luckily, countless good ones are available at every price point these days, but to name just one, Dr Vyas’s all-time favourite is Neostrata Sheer Physical Protection SPF50, £30, which comes with a universal tint but there are many other best tinted SPFs out there.

The best skincare products for treating hyperpigmentation

Best for sun-induced pigmentation: Dr Sam’s Flawless Vitamin C NAD+ Serum, £62

This is Dr Sam’s cutting-edge take on skin brightening (she also has her de-pigmenting Flawless Brightly Serum, £44), incorporating the cellular energy-boosting active NAD+ (most commonly seen in NAD+ boosting supplements) alongside 15% brightening vitamin C plus powerful antioxidants and blue light protectants. They all work together to keep UV radiation and environmental pollution (the most powerful brow blotch-creators) from wrecking your skin.

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Best clinical-grade pigmentation reducer: Skinceuticals Discolouration Defence Serum, £105

This clear serum that can be used all over or on individual patches is formulated with 1.8% tranexamic acid, 5% niacinamide and 5% gently exfoliating sulfonic acid for a synergistic brightening effect. According to Dr Craythorne, there is some clinical proof that a concentration of 2-3% tranexamic acid in a topical preparation can safely reduce pigmentation in all skin tones.

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Best for mature skin with age spots: Gatineau Age Benefit Hyperpigmentation Repair, £69

A complex of plant-derived brightening agents (did you know rice bran is a source of ferulic acid?) including niacinamide, brightening peptides, vitamin C and licorice root, all in a milky serum that leaves a velvety, line-blurring film.

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The one professionals use: Alastin A-Luminate Brightening Serum, £145

 From a professional brand that cosmetic doctors swear by, this light serum-cream softens the look of dark spots and redness in eight weeks. It teams tranexamic acid and niacinamide with a pigmentation-interrupting ‘Path 3-technology’ blend of peptides and botanical extracts to attack blotchiness from all angles.

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The brightening niacinamide bomb: La Roche Posay Mela B3 Intense Anti-Dark Spot Serum, £48

Ten per cent brightening niacinamide (that’s a lot) and a proprietary ingredient that prevents melanin overproduction work together in this light liquid serum, which in the brand’s own study showed a reduction in dark spots in 94 per cent of users after 12 weeks.

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The Swiss-engineered pigment buster: Dr Levy Pigment Control Drops, £110

Dr Levy's  products consistently impress our industry expert judges in the Get The Gloss Awards. He says there's no point bringing out a product if it's no better than whatever is available already and these light, milky serum drops are his new pigment-slaying powerhouse with a complex that inhibits, blocks and clears up melanin with tranexamic acid, niacinamide, vitamin C, algae extracts and Alpine antioxidants.

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Best anti-pigmentation peel: Dermalogica Powerbright Dark Spot Peel, £79

If your skin isn’t sensitive and you like fast brightening results, a session with this five-day AHA peel (it has quite a lot of glycolic, phytic, mandelic and polyhydroxy acids) will leave your skin immediately glowier. Use it over five consecutive days to lift dark spots (we didn't actually peel, but be warned; your skin can feel a little dry) and then once or twice a week afterwards. Brown spot-clearing agents licorice root, niacinamide and tranexamic acid will penetrate a little deeper to really break up that pigment over time.

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Best for sensitised skins with brown spots: Meder Lumino-Derm Brightening Cream, £115

If your skin is sensitive, try this silky cream that oddly smells of rice and packs a brand-new, powerful pigment-clearing peptide alongside depigmenting cysteamine and licorice extract. There’s a host of calming and anti-inflammatory ingredients as well (think tranexamic acid and probiotics) because inflammation is pigmentation!

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The award-winning Ayurvedic serum: Sachi Skin Triphala Pigment Corrector, £74

A long-time GTG favourite and award winner, this serum takes an Ayurvedic and holistic approach to fading pigmentation, tackling the problem with twelve different but synergistic actives. There are plant-derived antioxidants, brighteners, peptides, anti-inflammatories, acids and tyrosinase inhibitors in this light serum that will gently but resolutely fade blotches and post-acne marks.

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For calmer, evened-out skin: Cellderma Pigment Correct, £78.37

Cellderma is the brand founded by award-winning skin doctor Dr Dev Patel. This hydrating serum teams four clinically proven pigment breaker-uppers (kojic acid, alpha-arbutin, nonapeptide-1 and Western dock (a plant)) to both prevent and reduce pigmentation while keeping skin in a peaceful state of calm.

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Best high street pigment buster: Nivea Cellular Luminous 630 Anti Dark Spot Face Serum, £29.99 for 30ml

This is a silky serum that has a resorcinol derivative to prevent the formation of melanin (patented by Nivea), alongside vitamin C. Together, they’re said to fade brown spots in four weeks. Whether it’s really effective against melasma (as the marketing implies) remains to be seen – usually, you need something a little more clinical-grade for that.

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Best budget dark-spot and melasma fader: Dose by VH Alpha Arbutin 2% and Kojic Acid 1% Serum, £18

This purse-friendly all-over serum is designed to be a gentle alternative to hydroquinone-based products for treating melasma and hyperpigmentation. With niacinamide in the line-up, too, and the brand being known for is no-bull, effective formulas, it’s a great choice at a great price

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Best discolouration slayer: Medik8 Oxy-R Peptides, £65 for 2x 10ml

This silky serum featuring two peptides that interrupt melanin pathways was created  to target all three types of pigmentation with a three-pronged attack. It also uniquely uses oxyresveratrol to block tyrosinase – apparently, it’s 33 times more effective than kojic acid, but notoriously unstable. Medik8 has created a preservation system by storing the active ingredients in the lid; click them straight into the bottle of serum right before use for box-fresh ultra-potency.

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Best intensive treatment: MZ Skin Pigmentation Correcting Ampoules, £170 for 14x2ml

A seven-day intensive twice-daily regime of ampoules to minimise hyperpigmentation, melasma and age spots with alpha arbutin, tranexamic acid, vitamin C and antioxidant vitamins. It’s very flash and should help brighten within the week

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Best skin-calming melasma treatment: Paula’s Choice Azelaic Acid Booster, £40 for 30ml

Azelaic and salicylic acids, both skin-calming and effective against acne spots and brown spots, are assisted by licorice extract and further skin-soothing agents to make this a weapon against melasma to boot, at a reasonable price. Can be used twice daily, all over, under moisturiser or SPF.

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Best for glowing skin with vitamin C: Dr. Dennis Gross 15% Vitamin C Firm & Bright Serum, £88 for 30ml

Vitamin C may already be in your daily routine, but if you suffer from hyperpigmentation, consider substituting this for your regular vitamin C serum. 15 Per cent l-ascorbic acid (active vitamin C), lactic acid, mulberry and licorice extracts are in here to chip away at pigmented patches in their multiple ways. Smells a bit ‘meaty’ but don’t let that put you off; that’s the natural scent of vitamin C.

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Best pigmentation treatment for menopausal skin: Skinsense Advanced Anti-Pigmentation Perfecting Serum, £36 for 30ml

A fresh, grown-up serum that instantly plumps and deep-delivers a cocktail of reliable skin tone evener-outers that won’t irritate – think hexylresorcinol, niacinamide and licorice extract. Can be used at any time, applied all over under other serums, moisturisers or SPF. It’s now been joined by a whole range of brown spot-busters that includes a night cream, neck and décolleté cream, and body elixir.

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Best doctor-approved melasma treatment: Cyspera Intensive Pigment Corrector System, £185

A potent product based on clinically-backed cysteamine plus isobionic amide (an extra-potent relative to niacinamide), it whiffs but who said beauty is glamour?! There are also AHAs to enhance penetration and boost the effectiveness of the other ingredients. You need to use it every night for 16 weeks to see your pigmentation fade, then use it twice-weekly for maintenance.

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