Melanin is the skin pigment made by cells (melanocytes) present in the skin. It is responsible for the skin color, which may vary with several factors like race and genetics. Skin pigmentation disorders and exposure to the sun can cause changes in skin color and dark spots. Hyperpigmentation is the darkening of the skin. Hyperpigmentation can occur in spots, patches, or the entire face and/or body. Hyperpigmentation is usually harmless but can sometimes be caused by an underlying medical condition, which requires a medical diagnosis and medical treatment. Inflammation of the skin (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), hormones, aging, certain medications, sun exposure (tanning) can result in pigmentation problems like dark spots. Age spots are also a common type of hyperpigmentation. Most of the time, pigmentation problems are a cosmetic concern rather than a medical concern.
There are several ways to treat hyperpigmentation at home naturally. They can also help improve the overall texture of the skin, making it smoother, softer, and nourished. Natural remedies need to be followed consistently for 1-3 months to see results because they take time to work. It’s important to have realistic expectations. It is also not possible to change one’s original skin color because that is genetically determined. Pigmentation that is very stubborn or caused by medical conditions requires medical treatment. Any home remedy that causes negative reactions should be discontinued. One may consult with a doctor to ensure home remedies are suitable for their condition and rule out more serious causes of hyperpigmentation.
What causes dark spots?
- Sun damage: This is the most common cause of skin pigmentation and can affect any part of the body that is exposed to the sun.
- Skin irritation, inflammation, or trauma
- Age spots
- Certain medications
- Pregnancy hormones
- Endocrine disorders
- Insulin resistance (seen in diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS)
Home remedies to treat dark spots
9 Natural home remedies to treat dark spots are.
1. Daily exfoliation and cleansing with AHAs and BHAs:
Regular exfoliation with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) can help make your skin smoother, softer, and brighter. They help reduce pigmentation, fine lines, remove excess sebum (an oily substance produced by the oil glands present in the skin), dead skin cells, and unclog pores. Also, they gently remove existing blackheads and whiteheads. AHAs and BHAs also cleanse the skin of dirt and makeup. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are the most popular AHAs, and salicylic acid the most popular BHA.
There are several over the counter products that contain either one of these acids or a combination of them in varying strengths, which are safe to use every day. Cleansing the face twice a day with a cleanser that contains these acids can improve the skin. AHAs and BHAs are also good for those with dry skin. There are also toners, serums, and masks that contain either one or both salicylic and glycolic acid. Some people may be sensitive to AHAs and BHAs, hence they can use it once every few days or start with a low percentage of the acid (1-2%) and gradually increase the strength. In case of allergic reactions, it should be discontinued.
2. Topical toners, serums, masks, lotions, and creams:
There are several over the counter topical products that contain ingredients to lighten the skin and improve the skin texture. The important ingredients to look out for are AHAs, BHAs, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) can help reduce pigmentation, fine lines, remove excess sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells. Vitamin C helps reduce skin pigmentation and nourish the skin. Vitamin E is an important ingredient to moisturize the skin. Keeping the skin hydrated helps soften the skin and increases cell turnover, making the skin appear brighter. Following a daily skin routine and practicing it at least once a day, preferably at night, can improve skin health significantly. Certain acids and Vitamin C can cause increased sun sensitivity, hence should be applied at night. A daily skincare routine would involve cleansing, applying a toner, followed by a lotion or cream. Lotions and creams vary in their consistency. Lotions are lighter, whereas creams are thicker. Water-based moisturizers may be used for those with very oily skin. A face mask may be used two to three times a week.
3. Topical retinoids:
Retinoids are highly effective in stubborn cases of acne and acne scars. They, however, must be avoided in pregnant women. If you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, ask your doctor before using retinoids in any form. Retinoids effectively reduce pigmentation due to acne, aging, or inflammation and reduce wrinkles. Retinoids should be used with caution. People typically experience visible peeling, dryness, burning, redness, and increased sensitivity to the sun (hence, it should be applied only at night) till the skin gets accustomed to retinoids, which may take 4-6 weeks. One may start with applying low strength counter retinoids two to three times a week and gradually increase the strength and frequency of usage. Higher strengths of retinoids require a doctor’s prescription. Isotretinoin (oral retinoids) may be prescribed to those with severe acne. Treating acne is essential to lighten pigmentation associated with acne, which is a quite common problem.
4. Homemade face masks:
Face masks may be prepared at home using natural ingredients and applied two to three times a week. Some masks that can help reduce pigmentation and lighten skin include:
Yogurt, lemon, and gram flour mask: Yogurt is a milk product and is rich in nutrients. The lactic acid in yogurt is a naturally occurring skin lightening agent. Lemon contains Vitamin C that can reduce pigmentation. Gram flour helps thicken the mask, giving it a paste-like consistency. Gram flour also acts as a natural exfoliating scrub, which is gentle on the skin, improves skin texture, and reduces hyperpigmentation. The mask may be applied all over the face, neck, and other problem areas, left on for 30 minutes, and then washed off.
Papaya, banana, lemon, honey, and gram flour mask: These ingredients contain vitamins and minerals that can naturally lighten and nourish the skin. They may be mashed into a paste, applied all over the face, and washed off after 20 minutes.
5. Apple cider vinegar:
Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid, which can lighten pigmentation and reduce acne. Apple cider vinegar should be diluted with water in equal parts and applied to the skin. It should be washed off after 2-3 minutes. This may be repeated every day, once or twice a day.
6. Aloe vera:
Aloe vera contains aloin, a natural depigmenting agent. Pure aloe vera gel can be applied to the hyperpigmented areas at night and washed off in the morning.
Milk, buttermilk, and even sour milk can all help lighten skin because they contain lactic acid. A cotton ball may be soaked in plain milk and applied all over the affected areas and washed off after 20 to 30 minutes. This may be repeated every day, once or twice a day. Milk can also effectively hydrate the skin.
A healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, adequate hydration (8-10 glasses of fluids per day) are important for skin health because they provide nourishment to the skin from within. It can improve skin cell turnover, improving skin tone, and texture. Fresh fruits and vegetables have several ingredients that can lighten skin naturally. One may also consider taking nutritional supplements, especially Vitamin C, Vitamin B, Vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids because they help in maintaining good health.
9. Sun protection:
Sun damage causes tanning of the skin, triggers other pigmentation problems, burns the skin, and reduces skin elasticity, which leads to premature aging. Excessive sun exposure is also a risk of skin cancer. Preventing hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure would allow the skin to lighten on its own because the cells regenerate and allow other skin treatments to effectively lighten the skin. Without protection from sun damage, medical and natural treatments to lighten the skin would be futile. One of the best ways to protect the skin from sun damage is by using sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone to use sunscreen that is broad-spectrum protection (protects against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays), has sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or higher, and is water-resistant throughout the year, including the winters and cloudy days. Sunscreen should be reapplied every 3-4 hours. Additional protection by wearing a wide-brimmed hat or carrying an umbrella can also help. It is also recommended to avoid being out in the sun when the sun’s rays are strongest between 10-11 a.m. and 3-4 p.m.
There are several medical treatment options available if home remedies for pigmentation fail or if one is looking for quicker results. Depending on the cause of hyperpigmentation and its extent, the doctor would be able to suggest a treatment plan. Medical treatment may include
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NHS. Skin Lightening. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cosmetic-procedures/skin-lightening/
Zhu W, Gao J. The Use of Botanical Extracts as Topical Skin-Lightening Agents for the Improvement of Skin Pigmentation Disorders. J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc. 2008;13(1):20-24. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022202X15526663
American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQS. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/sunscreen-faqs