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How to correct dark spots, according to a dermatologist

Get blemish-free skin, no filter required.
Illustration of 10 dark spot creams you can buy
TODAY Illustration / Sephora / Revolve / Ulta / Credo

As summer turns into fall, we have started to break out our cozy clothes, put pumpkins on everything — and check for how much damage the sun did to our skin. Even though we try to be religious about applying SPF, we have noticed the dark spots that have popped up from a season spent outside.

To understand the culprit behind the splotchiness, we went to an expert to find out what causes dark spots, and more importantly, how to fix them.

“Dark spots are often caused by ultraviolet light, which stimulates melanocytes to produce melanin — what creates color, or pigment, in our skin,” says Jordan Carqueville, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Derm Institute of Chicago to Shop TODAY. “More melanin production ultimately creates things like freckles, sun spots or melasma.”

There are in-office treatments like chemical peels and lasers for treating hyperpigmentation, but they aren’t always in the budget The good news is, there are a variety of affordable, over-the-counter products that address uneven skin tone, and they can be used year-round to prevent and treat dark spots.

How to choose a dark spot corrector

“There are several ingredients to look for in spot lightening creams,” says Carqueville. “One is hydroquinone, which blocks the enzyme that makes pigment. The second key ingredient is vitamin C, which brightens the skin and is an antioxidant, so it’s preventative and can be used when you’re in the sun. Another important ingredient is retinol. It will thin the stratum corneum and thereby thin pigment and slough off extra layers of darker spots. Azelaic acid and kojic acid can also work to lighten spots.”

But how should you incorporate these creams into your daily skin care routine?

In the morning, Carqueville recommends first cleansing your face, then putting on any product with an active dark spot correcting ingredient (such as vitamin C, kojic acid or azelaic acid), then your moisturizer, then sunscreen and finally, your makeup.

In the evening, it is recommended to first cleanse your face, apply a retinoid or hydroquinone and then follow with a moisturizer. “I like to recommend people alternate retinol and hydroquinone every other day so they can be absorbed separately," Carqueville said.

With Carqueville’s insight in mind, below are nine creams we found that’ll work in your a.m. and p.m. routine to help get your skin back to its bright, beautiful and flawless state in no time.

Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum

Perfect for layering under moisturizer, this serum has 15% vitamin C and vitamin E along with kojic acid, which all work together to lighten age spots and acne scars. Users report that it not only fights hyperpigmentation but it also clears breakouts and improves texture.

Ambi Fade Cream

The star ingredient in this cream is 2% hydroquinone, an ingredient which has been proven to fade dark spots. And with its wallet-friendly price tag, it’s also great for those on a budget.

Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster

Miracle ingredient azelaic acid helps to correct uneven skin tone and fights acne. Reviewers rave about this product’s effectiveness for treating everything from scars to rosacea.

Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum

Available at many drug stores, this serum contains 2% hydroquinone, an ingredient that can fade hyper-pigmented patches. Users say they saw results in as little as two weeks.

Ursa Major Brighten Up Vitamin C Serum

This multitasking superstar hydrates and brightens dull skin, and balances tone and texture. Unlike with some other vitamin C serums, reviewers say this formula smells great and it’s not sticky, so it pairs well with the rest of your skin care regimen.

Cerave Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum

Protect against environmental damage all year round with this skin brightener, which contains 10% vitamin C, hydrating hyaluronic acid and ceramides. Users report more than just an improvement in skin tone — they say this helps shrink pores and decrease redness as well.

Neutrogena Stubborn Marks PM Treatment

This retinol-based product does all the work while you sleep — and you may even be able to skip the concealer in the morning. While it’s mostly used to correct acne scarring, it reportedly improves skin clarity and evens tone in just seven days.

Peter Thomas Roth Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment

Say goodbye to unsightly blotches and patchiness. This splurge is chock full of helpful ingredients —kojic acid, niacinamide and tranexamic acid — that work in conjunction to brighten the skin.

Topicals Faded Serum for Dark Spots and Discoloration

Packed with dream team ingredients including azelaic acid, niacinamide and tranexamic acid, this gel-like serum works to brighten skin and fade pesky blemishes. Reviewers love that it reduces hyperpigmentation, but some say it has an unpleasant odor so would be best used at night.

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