After a summer out in the sun, you may be wondering how to get rid of dark spots on the skin due to sun damage. Despite anyone’s best efforts to mind their SPF, any time spent under the sun can take a toll on skin. After months of UV exposure, discolorations in the form of freckles, dark spots, or scars may suddenly be visible, leaving one to wonder how to get rid of dark spots. Once you notice them, New York City-based skin care expert Dangene says, the earlier you seek treatment, the better. In general, even tiny dark spots “will keep growing bigger,” she says—meaning the sooner you tackle the problem, the less intervention will be required.
Start by seeking a professional opinion. “Brown spots are complicated,” says Miami-based dermatologist Dr. Jill Waibel, M.D., who explains the key to successfully treating discoloration is to know what you’re dealing with. “You don’t want to use a laser on melanoma,” she warns—it’s important to get a potentially dangerous dark mark properly diagnosed before taking action.
Once you’ve established that an offending freckle doesn’t present a health risk, it’s time to form a plan of attack. Here, Dangene, Waibel, and more experts share their tried-and-true strategies for how to get rid of dark spots, from the best at-home topical treatments to the most effective in-office lasers.
1. Stock Up on Sunscreen
If you’re careful about limiting your sun exposure, “you will never have a brown spot [to begin with],” says Dangene. Regular sunscreen application and reasonable skin coverage in strong sunlight will help ward off future discoloration, too. Naana Boakye, MD—owner of Bergen Dermatology and co-owner of Karité Shea Butter—suggests a preventative daily routine that includes applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen in SPF 50 or higher in the morning. Boakye says it's also important to look for sunscreens that are mineral-based (equipped with zinc and titanium). “The key to sunscreen is to apply 30 minutes prior to going outdoors, wearing an ample amount of sunscreen, and to reapply every two hours on sun exposed areas. Sun protective clothing such as wide brim hats, sunglasses and ultraviolet protective clothing are key to mitigate sun damage,” Boakye says.
2. Plan Ahead with Retin A
Both Waibel and Dangene agree: The sooner you start using prescription-strength Retin A the better. In addition to exfoliating away minor discolorations, the derm-approved ingredient also helps to prevent future dark spots through a photoprotective antioxidant. Essentially, says Waibel, “the sooner you start using Retin-A, the better.” Apply it at night, since it may induce heightened sun sensitivity.
3. Go for a Power Peel
For up to medium-depth spot removal, chemical peels including trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or glycolic acid superficially injure the skin to provoke a wound- healing response that expels dark pigment. For newish sun spots on very pale complexions, says Dangene, who offers the treatments at her Institute of Skinovation clinic in Manhattan, “we can eliminate the whole problem in a single TCA treatment.” Most clients, however, can expect to schedule an initial series of three to four appointments, and one to two follow-ups each year for maintenance, she says.
At home, milder daily peels can supplement doctor-administered treatments by way of glycolic acid pads such as Bluemercury's M-61 Powerful Skincare Power Glow Peel. Each single-use pad contains 10% glycolic acid, as well as salicylic acid, vitamin K, bilberry and chamomile. If you go the at-home route, staying consistent in your regimen is key. “It’s like exercising at the gym. You can’t use them once a year and expect results," says Waibel. To start, use glycolic acid pads three times a week and work up to daily application.
4. Invest in a Laser Series
With “the right doctor and the right treatment,” Waibel says lasers can be extremely effective in treating even the most difficult of discolorations. With their far-reaching wave-lengths, they penetrate the skin, heat up targeted brown spots and destroy them by causing the darkened skin to flake and fall off following the treatment.
For major impact with zero downtime, Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Hale suggests giving Clear + Brilliant laser treatment a try because it involves little to no recovery period, she says. The only side effect is dry skin. “You can go to work and function normally," she says. That said, it may take multiple monthly sessions to reach the same results as the similar but more powerful Fraxel treatment. While this treatment's recovery period is about a week, during which patients may look sunburnt and experience peeling, in the long run the semi-invasive treatment provides an “evening out of texture and fine lines, and improvement of overall sun damage.”
For those facing precancerous lesions, Hale recommends photodynamic therapy, also known as PDT, which can treat the entire face or chest in one fell swoop. After a photosensitizing agent is ingested or applied to the skin, the light causes the drug to react with oxygen, forming a chemical that eradicates cancerous cells.
5. Brighten Up with a High-Tech Serum
If all else fails, look to skin-brightening lotions to help improve the appearance of dark spots. The most advanced serums target thin, surface-level spots including melasma and sun-induced hyperpigmentation. “The most common ingredient is hydroquinone which bleaches but does not remove spots,” says Waibel, which means that, with enough UV exposure, they will likely reappear. That said, she estimates that topical treatments can help eradicate 50 percent of the offending marks. Consider introducing one of the below skin-brightening serums, spiked with everything from encapsulated vitamin C to gentle re- texturizing acids, into your nightly skin care regimen.
6. Invest in UPF Protective Clothing
Sun damage and dark marks can appear on the body as well. Another option for those who spend hours or days in the sun during work or recreation would be UPF protective clothing. Paula Bourelly, MD of Olney Dermatology Associates, recommends Coolibar, Lands End, Athleta, and L.L. Bean. “Look for a lifetime guarantee, suggesting the UPF protection will last as long as the fabric.”
7. Use Other Topical Antioxidants
“Plants have potent photoprotective properties such as skin tea polyphenols, soy isoflavones and silymarin. Topical antioxidants protect skin against oxidative stress,” Boakye says. In addition to vitamin C, topical antioxidants include vitamin E, niacinamide, ubiquinol and glutathione. “Regarding products, I think consumers should learn to read ingredients rather than go by marketing,” Boakye says.
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