- Dark spots on the legs are a result of an overproduction of melanin.
- Common causes include sun exposure, skin injury and razor burn from shaving.
- Over-the-counter hydroquinone and corticosteroid creams can reduce their appearance.
- Professional treatments such as topical creams, laser treatments, chemical peels and microdermabrasion are also effective options.
Hyperpigmentation refers to spots or patches that appear darker than the surrounding skin. They can develop anywhere on the body, but are most often found on the face, arms, hands and legs. For dark spots on legs, there are several over-the-counter (OTC) products as well as professional treatments that can effectively reduce their appearance. In some cases, home remedies can also provide certain benefits.
What Causes Dark Spots on the Legs?
Dark spots are a result of excess melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color and protects deeper layers from the damaging effects of the sun. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin.
When an excess of melanin forms in one area, the result is a dark patch or spot. Hormonal changes, skin injury and inflammation, and sun damage can all stimulate melanocyte activity.
Additionally, there is a correlation between skin tone and the likelihood of developing hyperpigmentation; darker skin tones have a stronger response to UV radiation which results in a greater risk.
Sun exposure is one of the most common and well-known factors for causing dark spots and are often referred to as age spots – because they develop after many years of exposure. The production of melanin is activated by sunlight as a protective measure.
Higher concentrations of melanin protect the skin from the sun by absorbing and neutralizing harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Melanin also acts as an antioxidant to protect the skin against damage from free radicals.
Dark spots can develop on the legs if they are regularly exposed to the sun. As a preventative measure, apply sunscreen of SPF 30 or above before going outdoors and cover legs whenever possible.
Cuts, scrapes and shaving
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) refers to dark patches that result from inflammation. While the exact cause is unknown, there is an established link between the body’s healing, inflammatory response and the production of melanin.
This inflammation is often caused by acne, but it can also be brought on by injuries to the skin, when the body responds by flooding the injured area with white blood cells. The legs, in particular, are prone to cuts and scrapes, as well as irritation caused by razor burn.
To protect yourself from cuts and scrapes, consider wearing clothing that protects your legs from injury. To avoid razor burn, regularly replace your razor blade and shave with the grain. It is also important to ensure your skin is clean before shaving, to avoid spreading any bacteria into open pores and causing irritation or infection.
Can You Remove Dark Spots On Legs?
There are a number of treatments for dark patches which can be effective in removing or reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation, depending on cause and severity. These include OTC or prescription creams, and professional treatments performed by dermatologists.
In cases where hyperpigmentation is very mild, you can achieve effective results with at-home treatments. For effective fading or removal of dark spots, the chosen treatment must address the underlying cause of the hyperpigmentation.
OTC topical treatments such as hydroquinone creams and topical retinol work best on mild-to-moderate dark spots. They are known for their ability to fight inflammation, treat acne and reduce PIH.
Hydroquinone cream is considered the gold standard for dark spot treatment because it works by inhibiting the production of melanin. It is one of the most well researched lightening agents, and when used properly, has the ability to effectively treat dark areas of skin and maintain an even skin tone.
Apply this cream in a thin, even layer over dark patches once or twice a day. It may take 3–6 months of consistent use to see results.
Retinol is another treatment for acne and PIH, working to fade and eliminate all forms of dark spots caused by overactive melanocytes. Retinol is particularly effective because it prevents melanin from developing, and promotes cell turnover to fade existing dark patches more quickly.
You can use either a cream or gel formula; ensure skin is completely dry before applying it to skin.
Professional Treatments for Dark Spots on Legs
More potent versions of OTC creams are available in addition to laser treatments, chemical peels and microdermabrasion.
To treat more severe cases of hyperpigmentation, prescription hydroquinone creams are available at higher concentrations. Unlike sensitive areas such as the face, legs are typically less so, and more likely to respond well with less side effects such as irritation.
Tretinoin is a derivative of retinol, but more potent, and is available in prescription strength. Along with improving signs of aging, it can lighten dark spots. Studies suggest that, similar to retinol, it works by inhibiting the development of melanin in the skin.
Because it is a stronger product than retinol, tretinoin can cause more side effects. These include a lightening of the skin not confined to dark spots, as well as dryness, redness and itching – which may worsen dark spots. However, with moderate use side effects are minimal.
Tretinoin cream should be applied once a day before bed, 20–30 minutes after washing your skin. Avoid applying it to cuts or sensitive areas.
Laser skin resurfacing breaks up the pigment in skin, allowing new, evenly pigmented cells to form.
Ablative lasers use intense beams of light to remove the outer layers of skin, effectively removing hyperpigmented spots. Nonablative lasers do not remove outer layers of skin but instead heat the skin to promote collagen production, which increases cell turnover and evens out skin tone.
Laser treatment for hyperpigmentation is similar in efficacy to topical creams, but they must be tailored to skin type. For instance, nonablative lasers, such as pulsed-dye and YAG lasers, are more likely than ablative lasers to cause further hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones; fractional lasers are recommended instead.
Chemical peels work by removing the top layers of skin, allowing new skin to form that is healthier and more evenly pigmented. However, if the wrong type of peel is used it can increase hyperpigmentation. Peels can also make your skin more vulnerable to sun damage and inflammation during the first few days or weeks of treatment.
Like chemical peels, microdermabrasion removes the top layer of skin so that a more even-toned layer of skin can take its place.
However, microdermabrasion only treats surface skin and will not successfully treat deeper deposits of pigmented skin. One solution is to combine microdermabrasion with other options, such as LED treatments, which will inhibit melanin production to reduce deeper hyperpigmentation.
Studies supporting home remedies for treating dark spots are limited, and these options do not provide the same quality results as OTC, prescription or professional treatments. However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that certain topical home remedies such as aloe vera gel and vitamin C have some positive effects.
Aloe vera and vitamin C
A convenient way to use aloe vera on your legs is to purchase an aloe vera gel and apply it once or twice per day to dark patches. While vitamin C is an unstable ingredient to work with, it has been shown to work well in a serum.
Green tea, turmeric and soy extracts
There is some evidence that green tea, turmeric and soy extracts can lighten the skin.
Research demonstrates that green tea can effectively treat dark spots. While this may be due to its antioxidant properties, science has not established this.
Turmeric is another effective ingredient demonstrated to reduce the appearance of dark spots. Turmeric can also help with razor burn by soothing inflammation, making it particularly useful for skin irritated by shaving.
Finally, soy has the ability to inhibit melanin from production. It effectively improves mottled pigmentation, blotchiness and overall skin tone, making it a good dark spot treatment and preventative measure for dark spots.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is another commonly used ingredient for at-home skin care. When applied topically to dark spots on the legs, it works as a peeling agent to remove the uppermost layers of skin, revealing new, lighter skin underneath.
Apple cider vinegar can harm your skin if applied if not diluted first: use one part apple cider vinegar to three parts water. Those with sensitive skin, however, should avoid using this home remedy.
When to see a doctor
If OTC treatments are not effective, you should consider seeing a doctor or dermatologist for professional treatment. You should also see a doctor if your dark spots are causing you pain, irritation, or if you notice a significant change in size, texture or color.
Dark spots can develop anywhere on the body. The legs are particularly vulnerable when repeatedly exposed to sun and as a result of PIH caused by cuts, scrapes and razor burn.
To treat dark spots on the legs, opt for OTC topicals and prescription creams such as hydroquinone, retinol and tretinoin that inhibit melanin formation and promote cell turnover – both are effective. Lastly, natural home remedies for dark spots include aloe vera gel and vitamin C.
As a preventative measure, and to avoid damaging UV rays, apply sunscreen of SPF 30 before going outdoors and cover legs whenever possible.
If you find topicals are not working, you should discuss professional treatments such as laser therapy, chemical peels and microdermabrasion with a dermatologist.
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