Uneven skin tone is one of the most common skin problems. Luckily, with the right topical products and treatments, you can make it a thing of the past. Here, three leading skincare experts discuss how you can achieve the complexion of your dreams:
Get to the bottom of it
There are many causes of an uneven skin tone, the first step is to identify what’s causing the issue. “The most common one is due to sun exposure,” says Dr. Laura Scott, Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and lifestyle blogger. “Our melanocyte cells (the cells that give the skin its color) are activated by sunlight and make more color in response to that. A tan is usually the immediate result of this while sunspots develop over the years because of prolonged unprotected sun exposure,” she adds.
Other causes include post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (for instance, pimple marks and dark spots left after a bug bite or a burn) and melasma, which is usually triggered by a hormonal change (when you’re pregnant or using birth control, for example), notes Dr. Scott.
“Erythema or skin redness is another common factor that can contribute to an uneven skin tone,” says Dr. Sandra Lee aka Dr. Pimple Popper, celebrity dermatologist and founder of SLMD Skincare. It’s often caused by dermatitis (skin inflammation), skin injury or skin conditions such as rosacea. “Erythema can also be triggered by exposure to the sun—which weakens and dilates superficial blood vessels under the skin, causing redness,” explains Dr. Lee.
Excessive oil production by the skin (seborrhea) may also be a factor. “It leads to bumpiness and irregular thickness of the skin, making your skin texture and tone uneven,” tells Dr. Lee.
Now, what can you do to improve your skin tone?
For maintaining an even skin tone, you need to build a skincare routine that focuses on both smoothing out the texture of your skin as well as treating and preventing hyperpigmentation (dark spots).
Try these eight derm-approved tips to improve your skin texture and tone effectively:
Exfoliate once a week. “The top layer of your skin is mostly made up of dead skin cells. Regular exfoliation helps speed up the process of removing those dead skin cells, revealing brighter, smoother skin underneath,” tells Dr. Scott. It also helps decongest your pores by sucking out sebum, dirt and other impurities that can cause breakouts. When searching for an exfoliator, keep your skin type in mind. “For example, if you have dry, bumpy skin, you may need something which contains both chemical and physical exfoliants,” says Dr. Lee. “While those who are prone to acne should avoid physical exfoliants as they tend to be more abrasive and could irritate inflamed skin,” she notes. For those who have oily or acne-prone skin, Dr. Lee recommends using a face exfoliator that has salicylic acid in it. “It’s a fantastic skincare ingredient that most people can benefit from,” she says. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that’s used in many chemical peels. It effectively sloughs off dead skin cells and debris and is great for treating acne. Try Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant or First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Resurfacing Liquid if you’re looking for a chemical exfoliator. For manual exfoliation, try Omorovicza Refining Facial Polisher or Tatcha’s The Rice Polish.
Say hello to glycolic peels. “Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that boosts collagen production and helps break the proteins which act as a ‘glue’ that binds the dead skin cells together,” explains Dr. Scott. “It’s incredible for treating acne, fading dark spots and superficial scars, even early fine lines,” says the dermatologist. They come in many different concentrations. Over-the-counter peels contain a lower concentration as they are meant for at-home use. While the higher medical-grade concentrations are used by dermatologists. “We typically perform this treatment once a month on a patient, but the at-home peels can be used once a week,” tells Dr. Scott. Check out Lancer Skincare’s Caviar Lime Acid Peel and Caudalie’s Glycolic Peel.
Invest in a good vitamin C-rich serum. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps treat sun and environment-induced damage to the skin and neutralizes free radicals. “It also inhibits an enzyme (tyrosinase) that’s used in the production of pigmentation or melanin, which makes it an effective lightening agent,” says Dr. Jenny Liu, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota. To reap its full benefits, wear vitamin C serum during the daytime, recommends Dr. Scott. Try Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma Day Serum or Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum.
Wear sunscreen daily. Both Dr. Scott and Dr. Liu stress that the most important thing is to wear sunscreen every day. “Remember, the cells that make dark spots are activated by sunlight, even a little bit of unprotected exposure can reverse all of the hard work you put in,” says Dr. Scott. So if you want to keep dark spots, flare-ups and skin cancer at bay, don’t forget to slather on a broad spectrum SPF before stepping outside, no matter what the weather condition is. Dr. Lee recommends using a 2-in-1 product that moisturizes your skin and offers broad-spectrum protection at the same time. Try Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart SPF 50 or Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion. If you’re a fan of powdered sunscreens, check out Colorescience’s Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 and It Cosmetics’ CC+ Airbrush Perfecting Powder.
Incorporate retinol in your nighttime routine. In the evening, Dr. Scott recommends using either retinol or an AHA cream/serum. Retinol, which is a vitamin A derivative, works on hyperpigmentation in two ways—by fading existing dark spots and curbing the production of melanin, which causes dark spots, explains Dr. Lee. “It also slows the breakdown of collagen, while simultaneously encouraging rapid skin cell turnover,” she adds. Try SLMD Retinol Serum or Epionce Intense Defense Serum. Because retinoids break down in sunlight, it’s best to apply retinol products at night. And just to be safe, avoid using retinol if you’re pregnant.
Stop picking your skin. “Please try your hardest to avoid picking at your skin and squeezing any pimples,” says Dr. Lee. “Remember, the more you inflame your skin, the longer you’ll struggle with hyperpigmentation,” she adds. Here are a few simple strategies you can try to keep yourself from picking your skin.
Treat redness with ceramides. If redness is your primary skin concern, the first step is to determine whether or not you have rosacea. “This is a common skin condition that I find is often under-diagnosed as most people simply assume that they have ‘adult acne’ or think that they’ve always had a red face,” says Dr. Scott. “Soothing creams that contain ceramides are often helpful in calming redness,” she tells. Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is another ingredient that is effective at calming red blemishes. For relief from redness, try Murad’s Sensitive Skin Soothing Serum or SkinCeutical’s Phyto Corrective Masque. “There are also certain prescription creams that can help that dermatologists often use in combination,” says Dr. Scott. Besides using topical products, “it’s also important to not over-exfoliate or combine too many products as it can make your skin more sensitive and prone to redness,” adds the skincare expert.
Get a laser treatment. “Both hyperpigmentation and erythema, the two main culprits behind an uneven skin tone, can be treated successfully with laser (such as CO2 laser or pulsed dye laser) or other in-office procedures,” says Dr. Lee. But much is dependent on what’s the main cause of the skin problem. Hyperpigmentation, for instance, can be caused by photoaging, melasma, trauma to the skin, etc. So the kind of treatment you’ll be offered depends on what the underlying cause is in your case, explains the celebrity dermatologist.
If, despite your best efforts, you don’t see any improvement in your skin tone within a few months, visit a dermatologist at the earliest opportunity, recommends Dr. Scott. They may be able to help you get to the root of the problem and provide the right skincare products or in-office treatments to get you glowing in no time.