Tackling Unwanted Dark Spots & Pigmentation - Pt. 1

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

Check out our book Skincare Decoded for a dedicated chapter on hyperpigmentation and routine building to tackle hyperpigmentation.

A Biology Primer on Pigment Formation

To tackle hyperpigmentation, let's take a closer look at the biology of skin pigmentation. 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.

Factors such as excessive UV exposure, inflammation, and hormonal imbalances can all throw this process out of whack. This can all lead to that frustrating uneven skin tone, 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.

A quick note on the different types of pigment-related woes: you might wonder if you have PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), melasma (brown spots related to hormonal changes), or just good old sun spots. Without an in depth diagnosis with a derm, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact root cause. But no matter the type of hyperpigmentation, the type of topical products and ingredients are pretty universal. So let’s read on!

Skincare Routine Tips for a Brighter Complexion

Ready to jump in and start finding your holy grail brightening serum? Hold up! Let's cover some of our routine basics first. Pigmentation related concerns are unfortunately some of the most persistent, frustrating skin concerns that takes a dedicated skincare routine to address. So here are some of the chemists’ top tips for tackling hyperpigmentation:

  1. Sunscreen. Sunscreen. Sunscreen: UV light exacerbates any and all types of hyperpigmentation woes. Using that fancy schmancy brightening serum while not applying sunscreen is like taking a badass sword to the battlefield naked. Checkout our sunscreen series if you need inspiration finding the right daily sunscreen for you!
  2. Patience is key: there just isn’t any miracle serum out there that’ll erase hyperpigmentation overnight (and if you see a product advertised as such, don’t walk, run!). With diligence, you can expect to see noticeable improvements at ~6 weeks, ~12 week time frame.
  3. Keep calm and exfoliate: regularly keeping up your skin turnover using chemical exfoliation is key! There are many studies that show AHAs such as glycolic and lactic acid can help with brightening skin. 
  4. Avoid irritation like the plague: if you embark on a Google journey to tackle hyperpigmentation, you’ll likely find articles that point you to ingredients such as glycolic acid, tretinoin, retinol, and hydroquinone. While these are certainly all highly efficacious ingredients, high levels of active ingredients can lead to irritation for certain skin types. Unfortunately, if your skin is prone to hyperpigmentation, it’s likely that excessive irritation and inflammation can also lead to more hyperpigmentation problems

    Once your skincare foundation is set, now’s a great time to look for ingredients that target hyperpigmentation. These are ingredients that work on slowing down that overly hyper tyrosinase or prevent melanin transfer. Powerhouse actives vitamin C, retinol, and niacinamide all have great data tackling hyperpigmentation. There are many other great ingredients as well such as tranexamic acid, arbutin, azelaic acid, kojic acid, licorice root extract, resorcinol, and of course the gold standard hydroquinone. 

chemist confessions pigmentation routine guide

Most products you’ll find contain a blend of these ingredients. Hyperpigmentation is truly a team effort! Look forward to pt 2 for some product selection strategies!


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!

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


What a fantastic article! I truly like that you address the underlying causes of hyperpigmentation since, as someone who is unaware of what may have caused this, it will be much easier for me to find an immediate remedy and also consult dermatologists who would examine my skin.

Keith Adam June 09, 2023

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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