They may be painless, but your brown spots are sort of like bruises. "Dark spots are skin's response to injury," says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, DC. That injury can stem from sun damage and inflammation (like acne). Our cells make more pigment to protect skin and over time -- instead of fading -- the pigment just stays, she explains.
Over-the-counter products that fade spots are usually formulated with botanical ingredients that either break up the existing melanin on skin's surface or they block the mechanism by which the dark spots are formed, Tanzi says. Kojic acid, derived from mushrooms, is a dermatologist favorite because it does both, she says. Other top lighteners are arbutin, soy, niacinamide, vitamin C, and licorice. Because they all function a little differently, getting a mix in your regimen will ensure all your brown spot bases are covered.
If your brown spot has a rough feel to it instead of being smooth and flat, it won't respond to topical bleaching and lightening creams, Tanzi says. You'll have to see a dermatologist who can freeze it off or laser it away, she explains.
To some extent, you can eliminate spots, Tanzi says. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) promote cell turnover, which removes that top layer where the pigment collects. "They do a moderately good job," Tanzi says. Try a glycolic or lactic acid based exfoliant such as Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser ($46; sephora.com).
Since inflammation can lead to dark spots, especially in darker skin tones, you don't want to be too aggressive with your exfoliation. Exfoliate no more than one to two times a week to reduce the risk of irritation.
You might know this one (we hope), but it bears repeating. Once you see results, you can stop using your fading treatment, but daily SPF is an absolute must to prevent new pigment from accumulating, Tanzi says. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and put on a hat when outside to shade your skin, she says.
Olay Regenerist Luminous Tone Perfecting Cream Moisturizer ($29; ulta.com) contains niacinamide, which slows down melanin production.
Neutrogena Visibly Even BB Cream SPF 30 ($16; ulta.com) includes soy to fade dark spots from the sun and acne marks.
Aveeno Positively Radiant Targeted Tone Corrector ($18; cvs.com) combines soy and vitamin A, which revs up cell turnover.
Kate Somerville IllumiKate CC Cream Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ ($48; sephora.com) contains arbutin and licorice extract.