Your skin is a reflection of your life experiences. When you’re young, you start with a clean canvas. But, as you get older, your skin gets stamped by what you’ve been through. Some marks are deliberate, like a beautiful and meaningful tattoo. Others, however, are the inadvertent result of the passage of time, such as a dark spot.

Dark spots on the skin can happen to anyone at any age. Depending on their cause, they’re called different names such as hyperpigmentation, age spots, or liver spots. These marks are most likely to appear on the face, the backs of the hands, the shoulders, the arms, and the back. These areas are typically the ones that receive the most exposure to the environment.

Dark spots aren’t usually harmful, although they can be removed or minimized for the sake of aesthetics. To get rid of them, some people turn to remedies such as a visit to the dermatologist or using a dark spot corrector at home. The beauty industry offers a plethora of products for this purpose. In fact, you can easily buy a cheap one at any drugstore; for instance, from the Neutrogena or CeraVe display shelf.

In this article, we’ll look at the methods of spot removal and which are the most effective. We’ll also show you how you can prevent spots from appearing or recurring. But first, let’s talk about what they are.

What Causes Dark Spots?

To put it simply, dark spots occur when a small area of your skin produces more melanin than it should. Melanin is a natural skin pigment that gives your hair, eyes, and skin their color. It’s produced by a special type of skin cell called melanocytes. We all have the same number of melanocytes, but for some people, these cells make more pigment than for others. More melanin makes darker tones, while less means you have lighter-colored skin or hair.

Studies confirm that melanin is important because it protects you from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It also has antioxidant and radical scavenging properties to prevent skin aging. However, some factors can stimulate your cells to overproduce this pigment, and you end up with an uneven complexion. These factors are:

1. Sun Damage

The areas of the body that receive the most sun exposure are the most likely to develop discoloration. These are commonly known as sun spots or liver spots. A solar lentigo (the medical term for this type of mark) is usually flat and can be round, oval, or irregular in shape. The color can range from very light to dark brown or even black.

2. Hormonal Changes

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, taking birth control pills or pregnancy can trigger dark spots on the skin. Melasma, as this condition is called, appears as brown or gray patches. They normally fade on their own after giving birth or when the pills are stopped.

3. Side Effects of Medication

Some medicines can cause pigmentation overproduction. If your dark spots appeared concurrently while taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), tetracycline, or psychotropic drug, inform your doctor if you wish to change your meds. The New Zealand Dermatological Society has a list of hyperpigmentation-inducing drugs here.

4. Skin Inflammation

A dark spot could be the byproduct of inflammation. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) may arise from dermatitis, psoriasis, acne, wounds, burns, or insect bites. An adverse reaction to cosmetic skin or hair products may also cause dark patches to form.

How Do You Remove a Dark Spot?

As mentioned earlier, dark spots aren’t harmful in the majority of cases. Nevertheless, if they bother you or make you self-conscious, you may consult a dermatologist. She will probably recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

1. Topical Treatments

The active ingredients in dark spot correctors work by either bleaching or brightening your skin. Bleaching creams can lighten dark areas of the skin to achieve a paler tone. An example of this is hydroquinone of Michael Jackson infamy. It’s a strong chemical that inhibits melanin production and shouldn’t be used on a long-term basis. Because some research suggests that it may be a carcinogen, the Food and Drug Administration limits hydroquinone concentration to 4% in prescription products, and 2% in over-the-counter products. One of the few products approved for sale without a prescription is Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum with 2%.

Skin brighteners, on the other hand, don’t really fade dark spots. Instead, they increase the radiance of the skin which allows it to reflect light more evenly. Many beauty brands such as Garnier and Burt’s Bees use vitamin C for this purpose. Other products—Olay Regenerist Luminous Tone Perfecting Treatment, for instance—include niacinamide (vitamin B3) which could also produce the same effect.

Skincare companies also conduct their own research into brightening agents. Natural plant extracts like turmeric, licorice, green tea, or soy have shown some promise. In addition, some of these ingredients are also sources of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or retinoids which are skin exfoliators. Exfoliation can bring fresh, lighter-toned skin to the surface.

2. Cosmetic Procedures

Sometimes, your dermatologist may suggest an outpatient procedure at her clinic in conjunction with a topical treatment at home. This depends on the extent of your hyperpigmentation or your skin type. Some of these procedures include:

  • IPL treatment: Intense pulsed light is a type of therapy that can reduce age spots and freckles. The light bypasses the top layer of the skin and penetrates down to the second layer, destroying unwanted pigment. Some people say that it feels like being snapped by a rubber band, although the discomfort is tolerable.
  • Chemical peels: The usual chemical exfoliators for this procedure are salicylic acid and glycolic acid, but at a higher concentration than in regular skincare products. These substances remove the dead cells on the skin’s surface, revealing healthier and even-toned skin. You may feel sensitive for a few days afterwards, so it’s important to use gentle cleansers and stay out of the sun.
  • Microdermabrasion: A special wand either sprays fine crystal particles or has a diamond tip to rub away skin cells. This treatment can improve the appearance of sun spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and some scars. Your skin may experience some redness for a while, but it should recede after a while.
  • Cryosurgery: This procedure involves freezing dark spots with a nitrogen solution. The affected skin peels away safely from the body, but in some cases, a permanent white scar may take its place. Nonetheless, the side effects—pain, swelling, redness, or crusting—are often temporary, according to the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery.

How Do You Prevent Dark Spots?

As you get older, hyperpigmentation may be unavoidable. However, there are some steps you can take to limit their appearance or recurrence. Among these are:

  • Use SPF: A sunscreen is your first line of defense. UV exposure causes a myriad of skin damage, so the Mayo Clinic recommends using a broad-spectrum product for protection. Choose one with an SPF of at least 30. Apply fifteen minutes to half an hour before going out, and reapply every two hours.
  • Wear protective clothing: Wear a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves, and trousers whenever you’re outdoors. You can also opt for UPF or ultraviolet protective clothing approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation.
  • Avoid the sun at peak hours: Stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is directly overhead. Watch out for water, snow, sand, and concrete because these materials reflect UV, too. And it goes without saying that tanning beds are not a good idea.

One Last Thing… 

Dark spots are largely benign, but in rare cases, they could indicate something more serious. Some skin color changes might be a sign of cancer, especially when it’s accompanied by bleeding, pain, or itching. A yearly visit to your dermatologist is highly recommended. Should she find any suspicious marks, a biopsy can be performed to check for cancer or other issues.