In this part 2 of our pigmentation guide, we’re going to shed some light on how to shop for the best ingredients & products to target that stubborn hyperpigmentation and build a successful routine. This will mirror a lot of what we talked about in our hyperpigmentation podcast episode, so check out the episode here if it’s easier for you to listen to it.
Set Your Expectations
Nope! It’s not just your imagination, that dang dark spot is persistent which makes tackling this skin concern pretty frustrating. In fact, here’s an example study to highlight just how stubborn it can be. One lab looked at a non-hydroquinone product loaded with 4 actives (including phenylethyl resorcinol & undecylenoyl phenylalanine) for 12 weeks. After 12 weeks they found that mottled hyperpigmentation had decreased by 32%. Overall, 57% of subjects showed at least a moderate response, 17% did not improve, and 3% had worsened. Those results don’t sound great, but that’s the nature of pigmentation woes. It’s long, arduous, and requires a lot of patience. Sometimes it can take up to 6 months before you start seeing any visible improvements.
But don’t lose hope! All good things come with time. Our approach here will take on a little bit of the “set it and forget it” mentality that helps you put together a solid routine to stick with in the long run.
Sorting out the Product Landscape
When you shop online and select the “dark spots” skin category, what you’ll find is a hodgepodge of product types. You’ll likely see a glycolic toner next to a vitamin C serum, and maybe a retinol cream too. Confusing! Which active(s) should you use? Do you just need one product? How do you layer if you want to incorporate multiple actives in your routine? No worries, you’ve got us!
**Also check out the hyperpigmentation routine chapter in Skincare Decoded for more reference material.
To make everyone’s life easier, we’ve categorized these products into two general categories: single active products and cocktail treatments.
Single-Active Products: These products feature just one star ingredient that targets hyperpigmentation. These are your glycolic acid toners, vitamin C serums, retinol, azelaic acid, or even some arbutin serums. They may feature other supporting ingredients that hydrate or soothe, but the hyperpigmentation superstar is very clear. Single active products (retinol treatment is the notable exception) are typically not going to be your dark spot miracle on their own. That’s not to say they’re not good products. In fact, these are great starting places to start understanding which actives work best for you and start building that routine. The reality is, hyperpigmentation IS a skincare concern that requires mindfulness in your entire routine.
Cocktail Treatments: These products contain a blend of ingredients that all have good data targeting hyperpigmentation. The name doesn’t call out a single champion ingredient. These are great products that tackle hyperpigmentation from several different angles all at the same time -- but the downside is that they typically come at a much more premium price point.
Let’s take a closer look at how these different ingredients fit into your skin brightening routine!
Routine Fundamentals for Brighter Skin
Before you spend a dime on those fancy-schmancy $$$ cocktail treatments, the most important thing is to get your routine basics down and explore more singe-active focused products. We would highly recommend starting with a fundamental backbone routine of vitamin C + SPF day routine, and AHA + moisturizer night routine. This is your most basic maintenance routine. While this isn’t going to be life-changing for more stubborn pigmentation, it’ll get you that general smoothness and glow back, while doing some hyperpigmentation prevention work.
First Step: Adding a Couple Targeted Actives
Once you have this basic routine down pat, it’s time to look into incorporating a few more active ingredients to slow down that tyrosinase. Some key pigment fighters with proven track records are: arbutin, kojic acid, tranexamic acid, azelaic acid, and extracts such as licorice root, mulberry, and white peony. You’ll find these mostly in water-based serum formats. We would suggest using these ingredients both day and night after your vitamin C and AHA before your moisturizer.
Once you dabble in this category enough, you might find yourself suddenly with 4-5 different water-based serums to work in.
If you’re a routine minimalist like the two of us, you can probably agree that a 12 step routine to incorporate all these actives is just too much and it’s definitely time to find your cocktail treatment.
On to the next: Finding your cocktail treatment
There’s two things to keep in mind about cocktail treatments:
- The price point is going to be significantly higher. That means, look for serums that come with clear clinical testing to back up their pigmentation fighting power.
- There’s a high chance you’re double dosing on an active you already have incorporated in your routine. For example -- you may already be using the Baby Steps for an exfoliating boost, but there’s many cocktail treatments that come with exfoliants like glycolic acid. So definitely decode those ingredient lists to keep tabs on your actives to avoid overdoing something (in this case, exfoliation).
We’ve broken down a few of the main “cocktail” serums you can find out there. In terms of choosing between these, it depends on a few factors:
- Your budget. Because it takes a solid 2 if not 4, 5 months before you see results, this is definitely an investment.
- Your current actives you’re using. You’re happy with your AHA step? So less of a need for products with high levels of AHAs such as PCA Skin’s Pigment Gel (lactic acid), Glytone Brightening Complex (glycolic acid), or Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum (glycolic acid). On the other hand, if you're looking to further simplify your routine, these products can replace that AHA step.
What about Retinol & Hydroquinone?
For the uninitiated, retinol can be a difficult ingredient to reign in. You can absolutely layer your favorite hyperpigmentation active with retinol -- just remember the name of the game is to go low and slow and not overdo it in your skincare routine until your skin acclimates. If you’re adding in retinol for the first time into your pigmentation routine, add in just 1-2 applications a week for a month to see how skin responds. Checkout our How to Combine Actives LIke a Pro post and the dedicated retinol post for more insights into introducing retinol to your skincare routine.
As far as hydroquinone goes, ...*moment of silence for OTC hydroquinone*. You used to be able to find 2% hydroquinone products at your local beauty store from brands like SLMD and Murad. Unfortunately, since the FDA has recently decided to ban OTC hydroquinone, this will strictly be a prescription-only ingredient. We would say that if you have been at your pigmentation for years with no improvement, it may be time to seek out a hydroquinone prescription or budget in some in-office laser treatments.
- Sunscreen! Sunscreen Sunscreen!
- All good results are built on a good skincare routine. That means make sure your fundamental routine is in check. Vitamin C in your day routine and chemical exfoliant in your night routine is a great basic starting place before getting fancy with actives layering.
- #decodethatIL when shopping for hyperpigmentation cocktails to avoid over-layering actives you might already be using.
- If you’re trying to add in retinol, go low and slow! Try just 1-2 nights a week for a couple weeks to make sure skin is happy with it.