Contains dermatologist-approved retinol. Provides vitamin C. Uses no minerals, oils, or dyes. Users will notice smoother skin within a day and younger-looking skin within a week of use.
Not recommended if you have allergies to any of the ingredients.
Contains palmitoyl oligopeptide that brightens, moisturizes, and improves skin texture while diminishing wrinkles. Provides vitamin C. Made with natural ingredients. Users will notice a younger-looking face within 4 weeks.
A customer noted ingredients on package are not identical to those as advertised.
Dermatologist-developed formula evens skin tone and reduces dark spots and redness with once or twice-a-day treatment. Hydrates skin and leaves it smooth. Doesn't leave a residue on your skin.
This product might take come getting used to.
Directly targets melanin, which causes skin to change color. Won't leave your skin looking oily or shiny. One bottle lasts for months. Goes on smoothly and absorbs readily. Lightweight. Smooths and hydrates skin.
This product may not be as effective at removing existing spots.
We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.
Having clear, bright skin is a priority for many people. Unfortunately, your usual moisturizer or serum probably isn’t enough to even out the look of dark spots and other hyperpigmentation. To really diminish the appearance of discoloration on your face, you need a high-quality dark spot serum.
A dark spot serum typically works best on hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage, but it can also help lighten dark spots left by acne scarring or hormone fluctuations, such as those that occur during pregnancy. It tends to work best on newly developed dark spots, though it may soften the look of older areas of hyperpigmentation, too.
It all comes down to choosing the right product for your skin care needs. That means deciding whether a water- or oil-based formula works best for your skin type, what pH level is most effective, what active ingredients are most beneficial for your dark spots, and what other features will help brighten and even out your complexion. With so many choices on the market, shopping can get overwhelming.
Fortunately, our handy guide can simplify the process. It has all the tips and tricks you need to choose the best dark spot serum for your skin. If you’re still not sure, check out our top picks to make shopping even easier.
Water-based vs. Oil-based
Like many skin care products, dark spot serums are available in either water-based or oil-based formulas. While both can be effective, you may prefer one formula over another depending on your skin type.
Water-based formulas: These dark spot serums have a thin, watery consistency and so are lightweight and easily absorbed into the skin. They’re an ideal option for oily or combination skin because they aren’t greasy and are less likely to clog the pores and cause breakouts.
Oil-based formulas: These dark spot serums have a thicker, richer texture, so they usually require a little more time to massage into the skin. They work well for dry or sensitive skin because they are somewhat moisturizing and less likely to irritate or cause redness.
If you have normal skin, either type of dark spot serum can work well. You might want to switch between water-based and oil-based serums depending on the season. Use a lighter, water-based formula in warm weather and a richer, oil-based formula in the colder weather.
A dark spot serum’s pH level tells you how acidic the product is. Zero on the pH scale means a substance is most acidic, while 14.0 means a substance is most alkaline. Those that come in at 7.0 on the scale are neutral. In other words, the lower the pH level, the more acidic a dark spot serum is.
Because skin usually falls somewhere between 4.5 and 6.0, it is somewhat acidic. That means your skin will be less irritated by serums and other skin care products that are slightly acidic as well. If you choose a dark spot serum that falls on the alkaline side, you could wind up with dry, flaky, and/or inflamed skin.
For the most effective dark spot serum, choose a formula with a pH between 2.0 and 3.5. If you have sensitive skin, opt for a formula with a pH between 5.0 and 7.0.
When it comes to dark spot serums, the active ingredients are the most important elements to consider. There are many ingredients that can help fade hyperpigmentation, but some options may be a better fit for your skin than others. Some dark spot serums may contain two or more of these active ingredients, which can help you see results more quickly.
Vitamin C is the most common active ingredient in dark spot serums designed to brighten the skin and fade hyperpigmentation. There are three main vitamin C derivatives: ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, and ascorbyl palmitate.
Ascorbic acid can be the most effective in fading dark spots, but it can also be somewhat irritating to skin, particularly if you have dry or sensitive skin. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate isn’t quite as powerful, but it is extremely stable and not as likely to irritate skin. Ascorbyl palmitate isn’t as effective as the other two forms of vitamin C, though it’s very stable and won’t irritate skin.
In general, if you have oily skin that isn’t sensitive, opt for ascorbic acid. Dry or sensitive skin does best with sodium ascorbyl phosphate.
Retinol, derived from vitamin A, can help fade dark spots and other hyperpigmentation by stimulating cell turnover to replace damaged cells on the surface. It also helps limit the production of melanin, the substance responsible for dark pigmentation in the skin.
Retinol works especially well for dark spots caused by sun damage. It can irritate the skin, though, causing flaking and redness. It’s usually best to introduce a retinol dark spot serum into your routine gradually to avoid skin irritation.
Glycolic acid works as an exfoliant to help remove surface cells from the skin, which can aid in fading dark spots. It works well for hyperpigmentation from both age and sun damage. Glycolic acid can cause redness and flaking as your skin gets used to it, so you should introduce a dark spot serum that contains it to your routine slowly.
Salicylic acid, like glycolic acid, is an exfoliant, so it fades dark spots by sloughing off dead cells from the skin surface. It is a particularly good option for oily skin, though it isn’t the best choice for dark skin.
Ellagic acid is naturally found in berries and nuts and works as an antioxidant to help lighten dark spots caused by sun exposure.
Kojic acid is a natural skin care ingredient that’s found in plants and fungi. It is effective in prohibiting the production of melanin to help fade dark spots.
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that helps with dark spots by limiting melanin production.
Licorice root is a natural ingredient that can help fade dark spots by blocking melanin production.
Arbutin is another natural ingredient that helps lighten hyperpigmentation by restricting melanin production.
Hydroquinone is one of the most powerful brightening ingredients available, but there are some concerns about its safety and tendency to darken skin pigmentation if used for longer than three months. It’s generally believed to be safe if used in a low enough concentration, and the only concentration available for over-the-counter products is 2%, which is the weakest.
The packaging for a dark spot serum is important because many of the commonly used active ingredients can degrade when exposed to light and/or air. A bottle with an airtight pump is usually the best option because the product isn’t exposed to the elements until you squeeze out a dose. If you opt for a serum in a glass container, make sure it’s dark in color, so the serum isn’t exposed to the light.
Dark spot serums that contain artificial fragrances are more likely to irritate the skin. For the best results, opt for a formula with no added fragrance, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Dark spot serums vary in price based mainly on the active ingredients. You can usually expect to spend between $8 and $150.
Inexpensive: The most affordable dark spot serums contain a single active ingredient in a lower concentration and typically range in price from $8 to $25. They don’t tend to be very irritating to skin, but they can take longer than other formulas to provide results. These work best for newer dark spots.
Mid-range: Dark spot serums that contain two active ingredients are usually a bit more expensive, typically costing between $25 and $75. Those that contain higher concentrations of ingredients like vitamin C and/or retinol fall at the higher end of this price range, but they usually show results more quickly.
Expensive: The most expensive dark spot serums typically contain more than two active ingredients in fairly high concentrations and can range from $75 to $150. You’ll usually see results more quickly with these formulas and have more success with older dark spots.
Apply dark spot serum first. A dark spot serum should be the first face product that you apply to your skin. Because it is thinner in texture than a moisturizer or hydrating oil, it should be applied to bare skin so it can be easily absorbed.
More isn’t always better with dark spot serum. Follow the instructions on the bottle for the correct amount of serum to apply.
Always wear sunscreen during the day when you’re using a dark spot serum. Not only can sun exposure make hyperpigmentation worse but the active ingredients in some serums can also make you more sensitive to the sun.
Stay in the shade. Even if you’re wearing sunscreen, try to stay in the shade when you’re outdoors for prolonged periods. A wide-brimmed hat can also protect your face from sun damage and dark spots.
See a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening if you have a dark spot that changes in color or size.
Q. How often should I use a dark spot serum?
A. It depends on the formula and the sensitivity of your skin. Consult the instructions included with your serum for the recommended usage. Some formulas should only be used once a day, while others can be applied two times a day. If you have sensitive skin and you’re using a highly concentrated formula with ingredients like ascorbic acid, retinol, or glycolic acid, you might want to start applying it every other day until your skin gets used to the ingredients to help minimize irritation.
Q. How long does it take to see results with a dark spot serum?
A. It varies from serum to serum. In general, it usually takes six to eight weeks to see significant fading. If you’re using a formula that contains two or more active ingredients, you could notice results a little sooner than with a serum that only has a single active ingredient.
Q. Is it safe to use a dark spot serum?
A. Dark spot serums are usually safe for most skin types. They can cause some irritation if you have sensitive skin or aren’t used to the active ingredient(s). If the formula contains ascorbic acid, retinol, or glycolic acid, introduce the serum to your routine gradually and work your way up to daily use to avoid redness, flaking, dryness, and other irritation.