- Dark spots caused by acne are known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
- These spots are caused by excess melanin production during the acne healing process.
- The spots are not permanent and fade over time.
- You can speed up the recovery process with over the counter products and home remedies.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is the technical term for dark spots caused by pimples. PIH fades naturally on its own after a few months, but if you would like to know how to get rid of acne dark spots more quickly, you have several options. These include over the counter products, at-home remedies or professional treatments.
Why Does Acne Cause Dark Spots?
Post-acne dark spots develop when the trauma caused to the skin by a breakout triggers the overproduction of melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. It occurs due to picking at or popping blemishes and is more common in individuals with darker skin tones.
The likelihood of developing post-acne dark spots increases with the severity of your acne. For this reason, it is important to treat acne early and avoid squeezing or popping blemishes, which can deepen infection and inflammation.
Is it permanent?
PIH usually fades over the course of a few months. However, you may wish to get rid of it sooner to achieve fully clear skin after a breakout.
Hyperpigmentation vs acne scars
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is not technically a type of acne scarring. True acne scars are hypertrophic or atrophic, meaning they are either higher or lower than the skin’s surface. Hyperpigmentation is a cluster of melanin and not three-dimensional.
Whereas PIH fades after a few months, acne scars typically remain for the rest of your life without treatment. An individual may experience both PIH and acne scars over the same area of skin.
Most acne scar treatments that exfoliate the skin or encourage cell regeneration are equally effective on PIH. PIH can also be treated with skin-lightening products that do not affect true acne scars.
How to Get Rid of Acne Dark Spots at Home
For many people, at-home treatments can quickly get rid of dark spots. These take the form of products available over the counter and DIY remedies. Some lighten dark spots by exfoliating the affected area to reveal healthy, unpigmented skin cells beneath. Other products inhibit tyrosinase, an enzyme that triggers melanin production. As the skin cells forming dark spots lose their ability to produce more melanin, they eventually fade.
Over the counter treatments
Hydroquinone is a tyrosinase inhibitor and effective treatment for lightening dark marks on the skin. It is available without a prescription in the form of a 2% cream, gel or lotion. Hydroquinone requires several weeks of regular use for visible results to appear and is safe to use for up to six months.
Azelaic acid inhibits tyrosinase and protects the skin against free radicals, which can darken hyperpigmentation. It is available over the counter in foams, creams and gels at 10–15% concentration.
Retinoids are a type of topical treatment derived from vitamin A. They reduce discoloration by increasing skin cell turnover rate and collagen production. Retinoids available without a prescription include retinol and adapalene.
Natural DIY remedies
As an alternative to OTC treatments, PIH can be lightened with all-natural remedies. These remedies may work more slowly than commercial skin-lightening products, but each is scientifically proven to work.
Lemon juice can be combined with water or tomato juice and left on the skin for 15–20 minutes, then washed away. Repeat once a day until PIH subsides. The fruit contains citric acid, a tyrosinase inhibitor.
Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid, which lightens the skin by exfoliating the top layer of dead skin cells. Dilute one part apple cider vinegar in three parts water and apply to areas of PIH. Let the mixture sit for 10–15 minutes before thoroughly washing your face.
Aloe vera contains aloesin, a molecule that inhibits tyrosinase activity. You can use its gel freshly harvested from the plant or in the form of a shelf-stable product. Apply aloe vera gel to areas of hyperpigmentation daily. It does not need to be rinsed off and is safe for everyday use, though it may dehydrate the skin in the long term.
Professional Treatments for Dark Spots Caused by Acne
Several in-office, minimally invasive procedures are available to treat PIH. These treatments exfoliate the skin or create micro-wounds in the treated area to encourage healthy cell growth.
This treatment involves the application of a chemical solution to the face to exfoliate the topmost layer of dead skin cells, revealing healthy, unpigmented skin beneath. In the case of mild PIH, a single chemical peel may be sufficient to get rid of dark spots; more stubborn pigmentation may require a series of peels to treat.
Chemical peels generally employ glycolic acid, salicylic acid or lactic acid as exfoliants.
In this skin resurfacing treatment, a small handheld device buffs the skin using either a vibrating diamond tip or a spray of fine crystals. It exfoliates the topmost layer of skin, brightening hyperpigmentation and improving the skin’s overall appearance.
This procedure involves a rolling or stamping device that pierces the skin with tiny needles. Microneedling treats PIH by breaking up melanin clusters and encouraging skin cell regeneration to create healthy, unpigmented new tissue.
The fastest treatment for PIH is a chemical peel. Peels have an immediate brightening effect on the skin, with full results after about three days. Even if you ultimately decide to have another peel to treat the PIH further, even one peel will create a noticeable change in your dark spots.
Microdermabrasion also has an immediate effect, with full results after 24 hours. However, it is a comparatively gentle procedure and requires multiple sessions spaced a few weeks apart. The number of sessions required depends on the severity of your PIH; four to six is the usual amount.
Microneedling results are visible after 24–48 hours, but like microdermabrasion, it requires multiple sessions over several months to break up the melanin clusters fully.
The efficacy of any treatment also depends on the rest of your skin care routine. While treating PIH, wear a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF every day to prevent dark marks from becoming even darker due to sun exposure.
Removing Dark Spots on Different Skin Types
In darker skin tones, removing dark spots carries a risk of skin discoloration.
Azelaic acid and hydroquinone can cause hypopigmentation, the lightening of the skin beyond its normal color. Glycolic acid peels at high concentrations (>30%) may have the same effect.
When properly performed, microdermabrasion is safe for dark skin; however, if choosing between it and microneedling, the latter may be the safer choice.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation develops during the healing process of inflammatory acne, occurring more frequently in people with darker skin. It is not permanent but can be encouraged to fade more quickly through treatment.
Active ingredients in skin care products that treat PIH include salicylic acid, azelaic acid, hydroquinone and retinoids. Dark spots can also be addressed with home remedies such as applying aloe vera gel, diluted apple cider vinegar or diluted lemon juice topically.
Chemical peels, microdermabrasion and microneedling are professional procedures that can treat PIH.
Not all treatments are suitable for dark skin. Proceed with caution when using azelaic acid, hydroquinone, strong chemical peels or microdermabrasion devices to prevent skin discoloration.
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