This natural, skin brightening ingredient is derived from various fungi that result when rice is fermented. “Since its action inhibits the release of tyrosine, which is an enzyme necessary for melanin to form, it subsequently slows down the formation of excess melanin, so it is highly effective at reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation,” explains Roberta Moradfar, Advanced Aesthetics Nurse Practitioner and owner of EFFACÉ Aesthetics. “It helps to exfoliate dead skin cells and allows for a deeper penetration to target stubborn dark areas.”
Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide has impressive anti-inflammatory properties that block the transfer of melanin to the skin cells. “Concentrations of 2-5 percent of niacinamide can help lighten hyperpigmentation, and while it’s known to be a safe ingredient for most, those with sensitive skin should start with lower doses and increase as tolerated,” says Moradfar. “It’s also beneficial in the anti-aging department by producing NAD which helps fight free radicals and repairs skin damage.” Gentle enough for twice-daily use, Moradfar suggests gleaning this ingredient from a water-based serum to penetrate deeper into pores and absorb more easily.
Azelaic acid is a type of yeast that is naturally occurring on healthy skin. However, it is also found in barley, rye, and wheat, notes Moradfar. While most skin-lightening ingredients are off-the-table during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, azelaic acid is safe since it’s naturally found on the skin. “It is associated with a lesser degree of irritation than other skin-lightening ingredients since it has anti-inflammatory properties, making it an excellent choice for those with sensitive skin or rosacea,” she says. “It also effectively reduces the dead skin cells that can cause acne, helping to clear blocked pores. It can safely be used in combination with other tretinoins, glycolic and salicylic acids.”
Retinoids, or vitamin A derivatives, are best known for their fine line-reducing and skin-evening abilities, but they also reduce hyperpigmentation. “Retinoids help promote cellular turnover at an expedited rate, allowing healthier cells to replace old, dead skin cells and yielding smoother, brighter, younger-looking skin as a result of the rapid exfoliation and stimulation of collagen and elastin fibers,” explains Moradfar. “Tretinoin as a topical skin treatment, combined with antibacterial ingredients, has been around for almost half a century to treat mild to moderate acne and continues to be used for the treatment of dark spots and sun damage.”
This powerful antioxidant, also known as ascorbic acid, helps shield the skin from free radical damage and promotes what’s known as collagen synthesis (aka collagen production), which reduces the appearance of an uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation. It effectively treats hyperpigmentation because of its ability to inhibit melanin formation, thereby fading dark marks, explains Moradfar. “The topical application of vitamin C helps to prevent hyperpigmentation by protecting the skin against free radicals produced during UV exposure,” she says.
Cysteamine is another ingredient that has been shown to help with hyperpigmentation and can be a great option for someone looking for a non-hydroquinone option, explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York. “It can help to improve the appearance of sunspots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” she says. “L-cysteamine is thought to work by inhibiting melanin synthesis to help reduce pigmentation.” It can be found in a specific topical known as Cyspera and can be discussed with your dermatologist.
Because the sun’s harmful UV rays are one of the most significant contributors to hyperpigmentation, one of the best first lines of defense is simple SPF. Jennifer M. Segal, a dermatologist with Metropolitan Dermatology Institute, in Houston, Texas, recommends using an SPF of 30 or higher in the morning and reapplying throughout the day (even on cloudy or cold days) when you will be exposed to the sun to help protect against discoloration.