Every day, our skin is bombarded with dust, pollution, and radiation from the sun, which all lead to uneven skin tone. And none of this is going anywhere, so if you want even skin tone, you need to do more than one-time spot treatments. You’ll want to adopt a preventive skincare routine to maintain that silky smooth complexion.
For your preventive base, we’re talking sunscreen, lotion, and, of course, a daily face wash. Gentle chemical exfoliant like retinoids can be part of both treatment and prevention to keep skin pigment even. And ingredients like vitamin C and niacinamide can halt overactive pigment production while protecting against sun damage.
We got the lowdown on everything you need to know to get an even skin tone from board-certified dermatologists Dr. Sheila Krishna and Dr. Lana Kashlan.
What is Uneven Skin Tone?
Usually, when people talk about uneven skin tone, they’re referring to hyperpigmentation—an increase in melanin production that creates flat brown spots or patches on the skin that are darker than your usual complexion. Melanin is a natural pigment that is responsible for skin, hair, and eye color. It protects against UV light and even acts as an antioxidant to prevent damage from oxidative stress. While melanin itself is perfectly natural and healthy, when it’s overproduced, skin can look patchy and spotty — which can be a sign of increased risk for skin cancer from sun exposure.
Certain skin conditions like broken capillaries and rosacea can make the skin appear redder than usual, but those don’t have to do with melanin production and so require different approaches.
What Causes Uneven Skin Tone?
Anyone can experience uneven skin tone, but the culprit can be different from person to person.
Unprotected sun exposure can lead to sun spots—which, Dr. Krishna tells us, is the most common cause of uneven skin tone. The skin responds to the sun by producing more melanin as protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Melanin can’t fight the battle against sunburns and sun spots on its own though.
Anyone can get sun spots, but people with fair skin, light hair and eyes, moles, freckles, and a history of skin cancer are more likely to get sun spots and other damage from the sun.
Sun spots won’t hurt you, and they aren’t the end of the world. But they are a sign of increased risk of skin cancer from the sun’s rays, so it’s worth protecting your skin against sun damage. And it’s never too late to start!
Floating particles in the air—smoke, dust, chemicals, and pollutants like carbon dioxide—wreak havoc on your skin. They seep into it and sneakily generate free radicals, which cause a loss of collagen and elastin.
The best way to put free radicals in check is antioxidants; melanin to the rescue. Melanin’s antioxidant properties1 get rid of these nasty particles and defend your skin’s essential proteins. “Your immune system naturally gets into defense mode, and your skin starts producing excess melanin,” Dr. Krishna tells us. As a result, skin tone becomes uneven.
Acne, or injuries like cuts, burns, eczema flare-ups, and more, can form scars or dark spots2 called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). “When your skin is going through the healing process,” Dr. Krishna tells us, “our natural protector, melanin, gets triggered.”
PIH can affect all skin types but happens more often in darker skin tones3.
Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation caused by hormonal changes. People who are pregnant, on a contraceptive, or are receiving hormone therapy can all experience melasma. The root cause of hormonal changes can vary from person to person, so it might take you longer to find the right treatment plan.
If there’s a chance you have a hormone imbalance, your dermatologist might recommend that you also see your primary care doctor to address any underlying hormone issues.
Hormones are super personalized, so chat with your dermatologist to find the best treatment for your hyperpigmentation if you have melasma.
What is the best treatment for uneven skin tone?
First things first: talk to your dermatologist before choosing a treatment.
“Uneven skin tone can mean a lot of different things,” says Dr. Kashlan, “Sometimes it’s related to environment, sometimes it’s related to genetics, sometimes it’s related to hormonal changes. So I really recommend that someone seek out the guidance of a dermatologist first.” That will rule out any underlying medical causes.
A patchy complexion is generally harmless, but there are several treatments to consider as you talk to your dermatologist if you want smoother-looking skin.
Gentle chemical exfoliators
Keep your coffee grounds and sugar at the breakfast table. Facial scrubs don’t guarantee even exfoliation and really only deal with the surface of the skin. Plus, Dr. Krishna warns that physical exfoliants can “irritate the skin, cause more oil production, or even leave scars and marks on the skin.” That’s the opposite of what you want when treating uneven skin tone.
Chemical exfoliants like retinoids, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid get absorbed and work their magic at a deeper level. You can guarantee more even exfoliation because you’re spreading the serum over your whole face.
Dr. Kashlan tells us that these skincare actives help disperse the melanin that’s “clumping together under the skin surface causing the discoloration.”
As far as retinoids go, we’re huge fans of tretinoin. Besides evening skin pigmentation, tretinoin is stellar at reducing fine lines and wrinkles, improving skin texture, and reducing pore size—also making it your skin’s best tool to treat photoaging (i.e., premature skin aging due to repeated sun exposure).
20 times more potent than retinol
Proven for its long-term safety and efficacy with 50+ years of research
The only FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging
This potent retinoid can’t be bought in a store. Night Shift is a dermatologist-formulated tretinoin serum tailored to your skin and prescribed by doctors online, without the cost of an in-person visit.
Skincare products that inhibit melanin
Kojic acid, azelaic acid, and licorice extract are great for inhibiting tyrosinase—an enzyme needed to produce melanin. These three often come in a combined formula. They’re great if you want an effective, natural solution. “They are all safe to use during pregnancy, as well,” says Dr. Kashlan. So they’re worth considering if you experience melasma during pregnancy. As always, check with your OB-GYN before starting any treatments.
Vitamin C is another great tyrosinase inhibitor. Vitamin C also protects against free radicals and promotes collagen production—which makes it great for combating sun damage. Some folks experience dryness with vitamin C serums, which can always be counteracted with a hydrating moisturizer.
Niacinamide works a little differently to brighten your complexion. Dr. Kashlan says, “Niacinamide actually blocks the transport of melanin from the melanocytes, or the pigment-producing cells, to the keratinocytes, or the skin cells.” Niacinamide is also an antioxidant that prevents UV damage and repairs DNA after sun exposure, making it an ideal ingredient for preventing uneven skin tone.
Hydroquinone is another skin brightener, but it’s more intense than most people need. It acts as a bleach by decreasing the pigment-producing cells in your skin. It’s often fine for fair skin tones but may worsen dark spots on medium-to-dark skin tones. The FDA has gone back and forth on the safety of this ingredient, and it’s banned in several countries around the world. So talk to your dermatologist before considering this active ingredient.
Everyone’s skin responds differently to various skincare ingredients, so it might take some trial and error to find what’s best to incorporate into your skincare routine.
When introducing a new product, start with a low concentration. Test for sensitive skin on a small patch of skin to see how it reacts before covering your whole face in it. And as always, talk to your dermatologist if you’re having trouble achieving your goals or finding the right products for your skin.
In-office treatments from a dermatologist
Dr. Kashlan recommends starting with a topical skincare routine to improve uneven skin tone before getting an in-office treatment. After 6-8 weeks, “if you’re still not happy with improvements in the skin tone, then at that point, probably doing an in-office procedure like peeling would make sense.” There are several on the market that are effective for treating uneven skin tone.
Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments target and destroy excess pigment cells in dark spots over 3-5 sessions. It generally has few side effects besides minor sensitivity post-treatment.
Laser resurfacing is more painful but usually only requires one session. It removes the outer layer of skin on dark spots to make way for new skin to grow.
Chemical peels also remove the outer layer of the skin. Common side effects include redness and irritation.
Microdermabrasion is typically the most cost-conscious in-office treatment for hyperpigmentation at $100-200 per session. It removes the outer layer of your skin, stimulating new cell growth. Side effects are pretty minor, and most go away in a few hours.
Talk to your dermatologist to figure out which cosmetic procedure makes the most sense for you.
How do you prevent uneven skin tone in the future?
Once you’ve reached your goals, it’s all about maintenance. Use a simple daily skincare routine to keep that even smooth glow.
Morning skincare routine
Wash away impurities (like pollutants, dirt, and bacteria) that can cause uneven skin tone with a gentle cleanser.
Treat with your favorite serums. Ingredients like vitamin C, niacinamide, salicylic acid, kojic acid, azelaic acid, and licorice extract play well with skin in the morning. But save glycolic acid and retinoids for nighttime, which can make your skin more sensitive in the sun.
Hydrate with a nourishing moisturizer to maintain skin health.
Protect the skin against sun damage with broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Evening skincare routine
Wash away impurities with a gentle cleanser—even more important after pollutant exposure throughout the day.
Exfoliate with your active of choice. Keep skin pigmentation even with retinoids, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid.
Hydrate with a nourishing moisturizer.
This is just a base for keeping an even complexion. Your skin is as unique as you are. So continue to experiment with what works for you and stop using a product if it irritates your skin or worsens your uneven skin tone. A dermatologist can help you find less irritating products or prescribe lower concentrations of your actives as needed.
Quiet Waters offers these services to help even out skin tone and diminish hyperpigmentation.