Tackling Unwanted Dark Spots & Pigmentation - Pt. 1

We all love that summer sun, but too much of that toasty goodness can make unwanted hyperpigmentation rear its ugly head. As summer winds down, it’s the perfect time to tackle those uneven patches, discolored spots, and brighten skin.

A Biology Primer on Pigment Formation

pigment melanin formation biology 101

Melanin (skin pigment) is created by cells called melanocytes, which look like creepy alien tentacle hands located deep in the dermis. These cells act like a vertically integrated company that produces, packs, and ships their products (melanin) all in one place. The rate at which melanocytes produce melanin is determined by the enzyme tyrosinase. At this production step, you can’t really see the color yet. After melanin is produced and nicely packaged, it is delivered to the upper layers of skin through the tentacle tips in a step called melanin transfer.

Excessive UV exposure, inflammation, and hormonal imbalances can all throw this process out of whack, and lead to undesirable dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Phew! Overall, a pretty simplistic look at a complicated process, but it’s important to keep this process in mind since tyrosinase and melanin transfer are the 2 most common pathways that your pigmentation products target.

Routine Basics For A Brighter Complexion

Before going on the hunt for your favorite brightening serum, you’ll need a foundation of daily SPF and regular exfoliation in order to take on uneven skin tone. UV light stimulates melanocytes to produce pigment (aka. tanning), but will also make your dark spots and unevenness worse! Regular exfoliation such as an AHA step is also very important to combat uneven skin tone. AHAs promote a healthy skin cell turnover rate, so you can cycle through to keep unwanted pigments moving along.

If your pigmentation is extra stubborn, consider visiting the derm office for a chemical peel. Some of the best clinical data combating hyperpigmentation and melasma are chemical peels using professional levels of glycolic acid, TCA, or phenols.

Tyrosinase Inhibitors

Tyrosinase inhibitors are by far the most common ingredients used in skincare to address unwanted pigmentation since it controls how fast your skin produces pigments. The gold standard tyrosinase inhibitor, of course, is hydroquinone, who has seen some unfortunate crappy press in recent years (more on this later!). Aside from hydroquinone and retinoid, some of our favorite tyrosinase inhibitors are: azelaic acid, L-ascorbic acid, arbutin, and tranexamic acid. Unfortunately, other than L-AA, it could be difficult to track down products containing these ingredients in the US. 

Melanin transfer inhibitor

niacinamide as a skin brightening ingredientAnother way of tackling unwanted pigmentation is to nip the transfer in the bud. Inhibiting melanin transfer is much less understood than tyrosinase inhibition. But the good news is, a familiar skincare friend is here to save the day — niacinamide. Niacinamide has clinically demonstrated skin brightening power. It does this through preventing melanin transfer rather than inhibiting tyrosinase. This means niacinamide is a great ingredient to add to your pigment fighting regimen to supplement your tyrosinase inhibitor products!


Pigmentation issues can be one of the most frustrating, persistent skin concerns. A consistent, layering regimen of SPF, AHAs, and pigmentation serums along with some true patience is key here. Slow and steady wins the pigmentation battle!

  1. Pick a few tyrosinase inhibitors as the core of your routine such as arbutin, L-ascorbic acid, or kojic acid.
  2. Considering pairing with niacinamide.
  3. Exfoliate regularly and for the most stubborn of pigmentation consider a derm level peel
  4. Most importantly, sunscreen everyday! UV light can exacerbate any pigmentation issue and undermindeall that work from your brightening serum.

*Anti-aging classic retinol (and other retinoids) is pretty well rounded and can also be a great addition to your pigmentation tackling regimen. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • A long but helpful overview on pigmentation [link]
  • Article discussing niacinamide’s mechanism in pigmentation issues [link]
  • Article examining retinoids’ role in pigmentation [link]
  • Hydroquinone 4%+retinol vs tretinoin [link


This article says part 1… where’s part 2? Do you have another blog post on hydroquinone which you refer to above saying more information coming? I’m trying to help my mom with her pigmentation- lots of sun lives in CA and in her 60s. I don’t think her budget allows for derm or in office treatments. Thank you!

Alyssa March 31, 2021

So helpful, as always! I’m trying to incorporate a brightening serum with 5% Niacinamide, 3% Tranexamic Acid, and 2% Alpha Arbutin into my routine which already includes retinol, 20% L-AA, SPF, and your Gold Standard Glycolic (which I love as a booster and monthly mask!). I’m confused about order and pairing here! Should I pair the brightening serum with my morning L-AA? Which goes first? Or would it be better at night before my retinol? I feel like I’m earning an honorary degree in chemistry with this journey.

Madelyn Kasprzak December 01, 2020

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