Why you get dark spots on your skin and how to fight them

PHOTO: Unsplash

Forget creases and wrinkles – one of the most common skincare concerns raised in the offices of dermatologists and beauty salons is dark spots.

Melanie Grant, one of the world's most sought-after facialists with a celebrity roster that includes Kim Kardashian and fashion designer Victoria Beckham, says it is the reason many of her clients visit her salons in Los Angeles and Australia.

"Pigmentation, including sunspots [and] solar lentigines, are probably the most common concern we see with our clients, especially in Australia," says Grant.

"More prominent in those with fair skin, these localised spots are usually caused from sun exposure. Other reasons for darker spots can be post-blemish pigment, caused by inflammation. Again, these are super common."

Radiance Advanced Repair capsules from Vida Glow. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

However, as Grant notes, not all spots are created equal. Dark spots can be hormonally induced (they are called melasma).

Then there are sun and age spots caused by increased melanin thanks to sun exposure and the ageing process, and inflammatory hyperpigmentation – the kind that can arise if you pick at a spot.

In any case, they're not all treated the same way either.

Melanie Grant is one of the world’s most sought-after facialists with a celebrity roster that includes Kim Kardashian. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Yet as Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, founder of ODE Dermatology, notes, one of the most common misconceptions around dark spots is that they're interchangeable, are all caused by one factor or that they cannot be treated.

"One [misconception] is that you can't treat it, especially if it's pregnancy-induced or oral-contraceptive-pill-induced … [w]ith the right dermatologist input with inpatient and skincare options this can be very managed or well managed," she says.

Some forms of pigmentation, particularly post-inflammatory pigmentation will fade over time, she adds.

Gunatheesan also stresses the importance of seeking out the correct diagnosis for dark spots, especially if it is a changing freckle or other mark, which could also be an early melanoma lentigo maligna, a type of invasive skin cancer.

Making a skin check part of your regular medical check-up is a smart move.

Radiance Advanced Repair capsules from Vida Glow. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

As for how to treat them there are plenty of options, depending on the kind of spot you have.

Grant says all treatments will need to factor in a person's skin type, colouring and the kind of pigment to be treated.

Some lasers can be helpful for treating dark spots in a clinic or salon.

"A common treatment used to treat sun-induced pigment, especially in lighter skins, is IPL/intense pulsed light – this generally only requires a few treatments to remove the discolouration," says Grant.

"For darker skin tones or post-inflammatory pigment, lasers such as Pico or YAG are very effective. If you prefer a less intense approach, gentle peels and LED light therapy are also effective, though the results are not as immediate."


When it comes to at-home treatments, choosing the right kinds of products and ensuring your skincare routine is consistent is essential.

Gunatheesan says ingredients to look for in skincare when treating dark spots include niacinamide, which helps regulate pigment production and is a good antioxidant; and vitamins C, for brightening, E, for helping to undo sun damage and A, a retinol or retinoid to help with skin renewal.

The most important skincare product on Grant's list? Sunscreen. Obviously.

"Firstly, employ a broad spectrum sunscreen each and every day along with a vitamin C serum to brighten the skin tone and shield the skin against free radical aggressors.

"Ingredients such as niacinamide, kojic acid, licorice extract, tranexamic acid and retinol are all highly effective. Look for serums, spot treatments and creams that contain these," Grant says.

A new favourite is a spot treatment from cult brand Biologique Recherche, uFill PIGM400.

Radiance Advanced Repair capsules from Vida Glow. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Given how common dark spots are, it's little wonder the skincare industry has a slew of increasingly innovative products targeting pigmentation.

From patches to serums and even pills such as the recently launched Radiance Advanced Repair capsules, formulated with vitamin C, zinc (for healing) and carotenoid (an antioxidant that helps with UV protection and improving skin tone) from blockbuster ingestible collagen company Vida Glow.

Inner beauty is on Gunatheesan's plan of attack too.

"My other biggest tip would be internal wellness," she says.

"Gut health is very closely correlated to your skin wellness. So reduce common inflammatory agents, from sugar to gluten to milk to stress. Upping your probiotics and prebiotics is a good starting point also."

While it can take time for spots to fade, April Roberts, national trainer at luxury French skincare brand Sisley, says it's important to treat spots as soon as you can.

"The best approach to minimise the appearance of dark spots is to treat them straight away, so you can work on reducing the intensity and the size plus prevent any further discolouration," she says.

"When treating dark spots at home, a great start is to ensure you are using an active concentrated serum in your skincare routine that targets loss of radiance and the appearance of dark spots.

"Sisleya Radiance Anti-Dark Spot Serum is Sisley's powerful new innovative serum that has a global and targeted action on loss of radiance and dark spots to fully restore the complexion's luminosity and evenness."

Sisley’s Sisleya Radiance Anti-Dark Spot Serum. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Another serum catching people's attention is one from New Zealand natural beauty brand Emma Lewisham, which recently became the first carbon-positive beauty business.

Lewisham started her namesake brand with the now cult-status Skin Reset serum (now housed in recyclable and refillable packaging) when she wanted to find a natural yet efficacious alternative to a product she had been using to treat her own hyperpigmentation.

"I went looking to replace this product with a natural alternative that didn't compromise on scientific-backed results, only to find it didn't exist. I was used to investing in high-performing, luxurious creams and serums that were scientifically validated," says Lewisham.

"I started looking in skin clinics, and leading beauty stores, asking for natural products with evidence-based results – I couldn't find anything on the market.

"After three years, and 52 iterations, Emma Lewisham was born in 2019 with our cult-status Skin Reset for hyperpigmentation and skin brightening, which is natural, and scientifically proven to outperform the most recognised and luxurious vitamin C and brightening products on the market."

Emma Lewisham’s Skin Reset. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Ultimately, treating dark spots is one step closer to the ultimate skin goal: Radiance.

As April Roberts puts it: "Radiant skin, to me, means the skin has a glow, it is free from imperfections and dark spots, and is even in tone and texture. Radiant skin reflects young, healthy skin and represents a beauty ideal for many women and men throughout the world."

Melanie Grant's at-home skincare picks for treating dark spots

  • Auteur Definitive Enzyme Cleanser
  • Chanel La Lotion Lumière
  • Augustinus Bader The Serum
  • Biologique Recherche Créme PIGM 400
  • Mesoestetic Melan 130 Pigment Control SPF 50+
  • For a spot treatment, Biologique Recherche u-Fill PIGM 400 patches

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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