In a perfect world, we’d all wake up with clear and bright-looking skin. But even if we’re dealing with dark spots and discoloration, that doesn’t mean we can’t have the radiant, blemish-free skin of our dreams. That is, if you know which serums to look for.
Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Clinton, Miss., explains that dark spots are caused by an increased number or activity of the pigment-producing skin cells melanocytes. This can be triggered by a number of factors and lead to an uneven complexion.
Top Skin-Brightening Ingredients to Look For
Known for its antioxidant properties and anti-aging benefits, vitamin C is one of the most common ingredients when it comes to fading dark spots. But there are also other skin-brightening must-haves that work for different skin types and concerns. Among these ingredients, Dr. Tonkovic-Capin picks arbutin, licorice extract, azelaic acid, AHAs and BHAs such as salicylic, kojic and glycolic acids, retinoids, soy proteins, cysteamine and resveratrol as some of the standouts.
For those with mature or sensitive skin, reach for natural alternatives such as kojic acid, which also contains antioxidants that enhance its brightening effect. The same is true for arbutin, a natural compound found in bearberry, blueberry and cranberry plants. It helps lighten and brighten skin by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, which can be found in melanocytes.
To address post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or skin discoloration as a result of skin conditions like rosacea or acne, look for serums with licorice root extract. Licorice root contains glabridin, an active ingredient that prevents the formation of tyrosinase and possesses anti-inflammatory properties.
Melanated skin has more reactive pigment-producing cells than non-melanated skin, making it more easily triggered by inflammation. In other words, irritation can lead to inflammation which in turn can stimulate more melanin production, a.k.a dark spots and discoloration. So when choosing a serum to target discoloration on darker skin tones, it’s a particularly delicate balancing act between effective ingredients that don’t irritate the skin. Look for ingredients like tranexamic acid, niacinamide and alpha arbutin.
How to Use Skin-Brightening Serums
To get the most of your skin-brightening serum, make sure to apply twice a day as part of your morning and evening skin care routine. “They all should be paired with a good sunscreen, preferably mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide,” adds Dr. Tonkovic-Capin. “Avoidance of ultraviolet rays is also a must. Otherwise, none of the products would be effective.”
According to Dr. Anna H. Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist in Weston, Fla., “Some treatments such as topical retinoids and topical vitamin C are best used in the evening, right before bedtime. It’s best not to mix them as they may cause excess irritation. Occasionally, I find alternating products works best and helps to avoid irritant contact dermatitis.”
The Best Brightening Serums for Dark Spots
Ready to add a brightening serum to your routine? Check out our top picks for face serums that target dark spots.
ISDIN ISDINCEUTICS Melaclear AdvancedBuy now with free delivery
Gentle enough to work on melenated skin (but powerful enough for noticeable results) ISDIN’s Melaclear Advanced helps fade dark spots and discoloration beginning in as little as two weeks, thanks to a blend of tranexamic acid, niacinamide, and its own Spot Corrector Complex. It targets all kinds of discoloration on all skin types, though as with adding any new active to your routine, start off slowly to ensure it works for you personally.
BeautyStat Universal C Skin RefinerBuy now with free delivery
This award-winning lightweight gel serum is formulated with 20% pure vitamin C and three patents, and is shelf-stable with no color change or loss of effectiveness (not easy to do with a vitamin C serum). It immediately and over time promotes smoother, more radiant skin with smaller-looking pores, and helps reduce the look of dark spots and discoloration while also boosting collagen production. Basically, magic in a bottle.
SkinCeuticals Phloretin CFBuy now with free delivery
Designed for daytime use, this multitasking antioxidant serum, which is perfect for normal, oily and combination skin types, hits all the marks when it comes to preventing and reducing dark spots. Formulated with two percent phloretin, 10 percent pure vitamin C and 0.5 percent ferulic acid, it refines the look of discoloration and pigmentation while boosting your skin’s defenses against premature aging. The best part? Once absorbed into your skin, this serum remains active for up to 72 hours.
Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting SerumBuy now with free delivery
A brightening serum that effectively reduces pigmentation is a win in our book, but this serum goes the extra mile by targeting dark spots you haven’t even noticed yet. Formulated with glycolic acid, resorcinol and tranexamic acid and boosted by antioxidants, it visibly refines the most stubborn blemishes and discoloration, leaving you with a brighter, more radiant complexion.
iS Clinical Brightening ComplexBuy now with free delivery
With its cutting-edge anti-aging formula, featuring a proprietary blend of ingredients that include powerhouse botanicals and natural hydrators, this lightweight serum lightens hyperpigmentation, evens skin tone and prevents future dark spots. It also provides antioxidant protection, refines signs of premature aging and reduces inflammation.
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance SerumBuy now with free delivery
Formulated with powerful botanicals, this dark spot serum works hard to correct and prevent hyperpigmentation and promote a more even complexion. Suitable for all skin types, it’s infused with Caudalie’s patented viniferine—a natural skin-lightening compound found in vine saps that inhibits tyrosinase production—and olive squalane, organic chamomile and organic grape water that all work to soothe and moisturize skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting SerumBuy now with free delivery
It’s no wonder this dark spot serum has won the Glamour Beauty Award 2020 for Best Brightening Serum. Featuring l-ascorbic acid—the most effective and stable form of vitamin C—alpha tocopherol and lactic and kojic acids, this skin-brightening MVP is your secret weapon against hyperpigmentation. It fades the look of sun spots, age spots and dark patches while protecting your skin from future discoloration and environmental stressors.
Obagi Nu-Derm Clear FxBuy now with free delivery
Featuring arbutin, antioxidants and a blend of vitamins C and E, this intensive treatment targets dark spots, melasma and blemishes caused by breakouts and other skin irritations. With consistent twice-daily use, it leaves your skin with a luminous, more even complexion while boosting collagen production, reducing inflammation and protecting it from free radicals and damage.
PCA Skin Vitamin B3 Brightening SerumBuy now with free delivery
This antioxidant-rich dark spot serum harnesses the power of tried-and-tested brightening ingredients, including niacinamide, peptides and botanical and plankton extracts. It works by decreasing unwanted pigment production, which in turn refines the appearance of dark spots and prevents further discoloration—all while keeping the skin hydrated and strengthening its barrier function.