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How to Treat Skin Discoloration

How to Treat Skin Discoloration

Causes of skin discoloration can vary widely and are impacted by a multitude of factors spanning from age to genetics, lifestyle habits, geographic location, and more. However, it is possible to track all causes of skin discoloration to one common occurrence: a fluctuation in melanin production. While treatments are available to target pigmented patches and even out skin tone, the causes and factors behind skin discoloration require a customized approach for optimal results. To get you started, we’ve listed some of the most common skin discoloration solutions, though it’s best to explore these options with a trusted dermatologist or treatment provider.

What Causes Skin Discoloration?

Before we dive into treatments, it’s important to understand what may cause a fluctuation in melanin production. Melanin is the pigment produced by melanocyte cells. An overproduction of the pigment can cause melanin to cluster in areas of the skin, while an underproduction of melanin can cause lighter patches. The most common causes of melanin fluctuations include:

  • Environmental aspects, such as UV exposure, free radicals, and pollution;
  • Skin trauma, such as acne blemishes, scars, or as a result of a facial peel;
  • Skin conditions, such as rosacea or melasma; and
  • Genetics.

The natural aging process also increases our risk for developing hyperpigmentation, as melanocytes tend to naturally grow larger as we age. In other words, as we grow in years, those tiny freckles will grow with us, typically appearing as larger dark spots or patches.

Determining the best treatment for skin discoloration should be a customized approach based on cause and those factors that could impact treatment results. That includes your habits when it comes to daily skin care and SPF.

Top Skin Discoloration Treatments

Creams and Topicals

Creams and topicals can offer an effective treatment for minor skin discoloration as a result of UV exposure or melasma, a more common occurrence among women experiencing a fluctuation in hormonal levels. For best results, look for creams, serums, or other topicals that contain the following:

  • Hydroquinone: The gold standard for treating skin discoloration, hydroquinone is often sold in concentrations of up to 2% in over-the-counter skin care or higher concentrations with a prescription from a dermatologist. Hydroquinone works to inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase to slow melanin production and induce fading of dark spots. For those with darker skin tones, hydroquinone is best used sparingly as a spot treatment, as it might cause lightening of surrounding skin. Always pair hydroquinone products with sunscreen.
  • Kojic acid: Best when paired with hydroquinone, kojic acid is derived from fermented rice or mushrooms. Kojic acid effectively blocks the activity of pigment cells, halting the further concentration of melanin while fading dark spots.
  • Vitamin C: Applied topically, vitamin C inhibits enzymes that produce melanin, gradually fading the appearance of dark spots or patches on the skin. Because vitamin C targets pigmentation, it’s safe to apply all over the skin for those with lighter Fitzpatrick skin types.

One key note for darker skin tones is to avoid products with hyaluronic acids, as those with warmer Fitzpatrick skin types tend to respond with redness and darker pigmentation.

Vitamin Injections

Similar to topicals, vitamin injections suppress enzymes and amino acids linked to the production of melanin. Less of a targeted treatment, vitamin injections utilize active solutions which are directly administered into the bloodstream for an overall brightening effect and a gradual fading of dark spots. It should be emphasized that these treatments are non-targeted, meaning that it is possible the body will utilize the injected vitamins in other ways than evening out a pigmented complexion.

Chemical Peels

Chemical peels are a little more heavy-handed in achieving results than serums and vitamin injections. Chemical peels utilize active ingredients like glycolic, salicylic, mandelic, lactic, and/or tricholoracetic acids to remove the upper layer of skin, encouraging skin cell renewal and the gradual healing of dark spots and skin discoloration. Results are achieved faster than topicals alone and peels can be customized by time and depth to target deeper pigmentation concerns. Chemical peels are typically not safe for all skin tones.


Microdermabrasion is a superficial, non-chemical treatment that leaves skin tissue intact for a shorter recovery time. Using microparticles to “sand” away skin cells, microdermabrasion exfoliates and sweeps away dead skin for a smoother, more even-toned appearance. This treatment is best for mild pigmentation concerns, offering modest, natural-looking results.


Microneedling utilizes tiny pins to create microdermal injuries that reach below the skin’s surface to stimulate skin’s natural repair response. Collagen and elastin production levels increase as a result, allowing skin to renew and heal for a younger-looking, more even-toned complexion. Microneedling may be paired with topical treatments like hyaluronic acid or vitamin C serums to boost wound healing and more effectively reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Fractional Laser Skin Resurfacing Treatments

A non-surgical skin resurfacing treatment option for uneven skin texture and pigmentation, fractional laser skin resurfacing treatments utilize radio frequency (RF) energy to safely treat all skin types. Creating tiny microdermal wounds via an applicator that features tiny pins, RF energy is safely and effectively delivered to targeted areas below the skin’s surface, spurring skin’s natural healing cycle to even out skin tone. By delivering energy below the skin’s surface, the results achieved utilizing fractional laser skin resurfacing treatments generally outpace those achieved with superficial treatments like topicals, chemical peels, or microdermabrasion.

Photofacial Treatments

For skin discoloration caused by UV damage, customized photofacial treatment plans may offer the most effective solution. Treating sun spots as well as vascular marks, visible veins, port wine stains, and discoloration, photofacial treatments utilize Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) technology to precisely target pigmented tissue deep below the skin’s surface in quick 20-minute sessions. The result is a reduction in the appearance of discoloration and a boost in collagen and elastin levels for healthier, younger-looking skin without damaging any of the surrounding tissue. 

Interested in learning more about laser skin resurfacing or photofacial treatments, or wondering which is the best choice to treat your skin discoloration concerns? Find a certified treatment provider near you using our search field below.

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