- Hyperpigmentation is a common dermatological disorder characterized by uneven skin pigmentation that varies in size and color.
- Hyperpigmentation is caused by sun exposure, aging, hormonal fluctuations and various skin conditions.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) effectively treats hyperpigmentation because of its powerful antioxidant properties and its ability to inhibit melanin formation.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for hyperpigmentation include serums and supplements with high vitamin C concentrations.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, has many skin benefits, ranging from improving hydration to fighting signs of aging. When applied topically, it is an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation.
For those seeking to even out their skin tone using a simple and effective option, vitamin C products are a good choice. There are, however, a great many vitamin C products such as serums and supplements, in addition to other alternatives. It is therefore essential to determine which vitamin C formulation is best for your skin.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is a very common skin disorder. It is best described as uneven pigmentation on the skin, usually localized on the face, which appear as dark patches that vary in size and color.
Hyperpigmentation is generally caused by an increase in the production of melanin, the natural pigment that colors skin; this process of creating melanin is called melanogenesis. Many factors can cause melanin production to fluctuate, but the primary ones are sun exposure, age and hormonal fluctuations.
When skin has been overexposed to UV rays, pigment spots or sunspots, can develop. They appear when melanin is overproduced and deposited in different areas of the skin.
Sunspots appear most commonly on the face, as it is exposed to these rays more often than most other parts of the body. The neck, arms and hands are also frequently exposed to sunlight, and are therefore also likely to accumulate sunspots.
Vitamin C improves excessive pigment formation and the synthesis of melanocytes (melanin-producing skin cells) in the skin due to UV exposure. It also significantly improves signs of photoaging by contributing to collagen formation.
With age, the number of melanocytes in the body actually decreases. Although they decrease in number, the remainder increase in size, and their distribution becomes more focused, causing dark spots or age spots.
Topical application of Vitamin C decreases these changes by inhibiting melanogenesis, as well as by preventing the deterioration of collagen and the loss of elastin due to aging.
Skin conditions: melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation
Skin conditions such as melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation both have hyperpigmentation as a common symptom.
Melasma can be triggered by changes in hormone levels, and manifests as large patches of hyperpigmented skin primarily on the face.
Although it can affect both men and women, it is most common in women due to fluctuations in hormone levels during pregnancy, where estrogen and progesterone stimulate the overproduction of melanin.
In fact, melasma occurs in 10–15% of pregnant women and in 10–25% of women taking oral contraceptives.
Vitamin C can reduce pigmentation by interrupting the key steps of melanin formation, thus significantly decreasing the degree of pigmentation in those prone to developing melasma.
Once a wound has healed following skin injuries, acne, chemical exposure or dermatitis, skin may be left darkened and discolored. This is called postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and is a result of the inflammation triggering melanin production.
This type of hyperpigmentation may also be caused by cosmetic procedures such as chemical peels and dermabrasion.
How Does Vitamin C Treat Hyperpigmentation?
Vitamin C is effective in reducing the effects of hyperpigmentation by decreasing melatonin formation and fading dark spots.
As vitamin C is an unstable compound, it is often combined with other agents such as retinoids, soy proteins and vitamin E, for better results.
Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties are effective in neutralizing the free radicals formed by UV rays or pollution. Vitamin C protects the skin from these oxidative stresses by neutralizing these free radicals and preventing the skin damage they can cause, including hyperpigmentation. The anti-inflammatory action of vitamin C can also prevent postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Does it work on dark or black skin?
Because black skin tends to produce excess melanin after an inflammation, it is generally more affected by hyperpigmentation than lighter skin. Little clinical research is available to attest to the efficacy of vitamin C as a treatment for dark spots on black skin. However, one study of a combination of vitamin C and lactic acid demonstrated positive results with medium to dark skin.
Is Vitamin C effective?
There is considerable evidence that vitamin C, which is widely used in cosmetic and therapeutic markets, has a significant skin-lightening effect, and works as an anti-aging agent. It has been demonstrated to decrease melanin synthesis, as well as counteract the effects of free radicals and prevent UV-induced skin damage.
Anti-aging and anti-inflammatory
Because of its high acidity, vitamin C, when applied to the skin, triggers cell regeneration and its production of collagen and elastin. It leaves the skin smoother and brighter and fades dark spots by reducing melanin production.
Repeated sun exposure accelerates melanin production which leads to hyperpigmented spots. The topical application of Vitamin C is effective in preventing pigmentation by protecting the skin against free radicals produced during UV exposure.
Vitamin C Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
Vitamin C serums
Vitamin C is an unstable compound, and not always readily absorbed through the skin. However, it has been demonstrated that a 20% vitamin C serum is capable of reducing signs of photoaging, including dark spots caused by UV rays.
As for selecting the best vitamin C serum, L-ascorbic acid is found to be the most biologically active when compared to ascorbyl-6-palmitate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. Additionally, vitamin C topicals that also include vitamin E are more stable and more effective at treating hyperpigmentation.
While treating hyperpigmentation with vitamin C is somewhat effective, the best measures to take against hyperpigmentation are preventative ones. Vitamin C serums, for instance, can protect against sun exposure.
Vitamin C serum for hyperpigmentation can easily be incorporated into your daily skin care routine. Apply in the morning for protection against sun damage throughout the day. The serum should be used after exfoliating, on a clean and dry face, and before moisturizer and SPF sunscreen.
Although side effects are rare, the application of vitamin C serums on dry skin or sensitive skin types may result in skin itchiness, stinging or dryness, due to their acidity.
Vitamin C supplements
Taking oral dietary supplements of vitamin C can be somewhat effective for skin health. The recommended amount of vitamin C you should be consuming is 100 to 300 mg per day; excess vitamin C is discarded by the body through urine.
Vitamin C supplements (500 mg day) have been found to increase levels of vitamin C in the skin. While higher levels of vitamin C are believed by some to help fight the visible signs of aging, there is little conclusive evidence on the matter as no studies have measured vitamin C levels or intake and linked them to changes in visible aging.
Some sources report that there is a limit to how effective ingested vitamin C can be for the skin, and that supplements may not be as effective as topical vitamin C treatments. For overall skin health, and considering the conflicting evidence, it is best to use a reasonable dose of both oral and topical vitamin C.
Alternatives to Vitamin C
Cosmeceuticals are a safe and effective alternative to vitamin C in treating dark spots. Most of these alternative cosmeceutical agents reduce melanin formation. These include azelaic, kojic and ellagic acid among other medical and natural products.
These acids all function by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme that triggers the production of melanin, which can cause hyperpigmentation.
- Azelaic acid has been found to improve both melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation
- Kojic acid can treat facial dyschromia, melasma and irregular facial hyperpigmentation
- Ellagic acid improves melasma, hyperpigmentation and dark spots
If looking for a natural skin care solution to prevent, treat and improve dark patches, topical application of vitamin C has been well studied and is well worth exploring.
Vitamin C’s function as an antioxidant, as well as its anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects means it will protect against hyperpigmentation caused by sun exposure and aging. Over time and with consistent care, topical vitamin C treatments, particularly in the form of serums, will reduce the appearance of skin hyperpigmentation.
If vitamin C is not right for you, there are other options to consider for treating hyperpigmentation. A variety of topical acids, as well as procedures such as chemical peels and laser therapy are also effective options.
If you are concerned about your skin’s pigmentation, or if you are experiencing more severe dark patches, consult with a skin care professional.
- Sarkar, R., Arora, P., & Garg, K. V. (2013). Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available?. Journal of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery, 6(1), 4–11. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.110089
- Pullar, J. M., Carr, A. C., & Vissers, M. (2017). The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients, 9(8), 866. doi:10.3390/nu9080866
- Fitzpatrick RE, Rostan EF. Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. Dermatol Surg. 2002 Mar;28(3):231-6. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11896774
- Kang, H. Y., & Ortonne, J. P. (2010). What should be considered in treatment of melasma. Annals of dermatology, 22(4), 373–378. doi:10.5021/ad.2010.22.4.373
- Davis, E. C., & Callender, V. D. (2010). Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: a review of the epidemiology, clinical features, and treatment options in skin of color. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(7), 20–31. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921758/
- Draelos ZD. Skin lightening preparations and the hydroquinone controversy. Dermatol Ther. 2007;20:308–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-8019.2007.00144.x
- Ando H, Kondoh H, Ichihashi M, Hearing VJ. Approaches to identify inhibitors of melanin biosynthesis via the quality control of tyrosinase. J Invest Dermatol. 2007;127:751–761. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.jid.5700683
- Getoff N. Vitamin C: electron emission, free radicals and biological versatility. In Vivo. 2013 Sep-Oct;27(5):565-70. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23988889
- De Dormael, R., Bastien, P., Sextius, P., Gueniche, A., Ye, D., Tran, C., … Tricaud, C. (2019). Vitamin C Prevents Ultraviolet-induced Pigmentation in Healthy Volunteers: Bayesian Meta-analysis Results from 31 Randomized Controlled versus Vehicle Clinical Studies. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 12(2), E53–E59. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6415704/
- Telang P. S. (2013). Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal, 4(2), 143–146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593
- Traikovich SS. Use of Topical Ascorbic acid and its effects on Photo damaged skin topography. Arch Otorhinol Head Neck Surg. 1999;125:1091–8. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10522500
- Smith, W.P. The effects of topical L(+) lactic acid and ascorbic acid on skin whitening. Int. J. Cosmet. Sci. 1999, 21, 33–40. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18505528
- Al-Niaimi, F., & Chiang, N. (2017). Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(7), 14–17. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605218/#B3
- Reflectance confocal microscopy and image analysis to evaluate the efficacy of a topical facial serum with 20% vitamin C in improving signs of aging. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 79, Issue 3, AB243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2018.05.966
- Burke KE. Interaction of vitamins C and E as better cosmeceuticals. Dermatol Ther. 2007 Sep-Oct;20(5):314-21. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18045356
- Oudemans-van Straaten, H. M., Spoelstra-de Man, A. M., & de Waard, M. C. (2014). Vitamin C revisited. Critical care (London, England), 18(4), 460. doi:10.1186/s13054-014-0460-x
- McArdle F, Rhodes LE, Parslew R, Jack CI, Friedmann PS, Jackson MJ. UVR-induced oxidative stress in human skin in vivo: effects of oral vitamin C supplementation. Free Radic Biol Med. 2002 Nov 15;33(10):1355-62. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12419467
- Preetha, J.P., & Karthika, K. (2009). Cosmeceuticals – an evolution. semanticscholar.org/paper/Cosmeceuticals-an-evolution.-Preetha-Karthika/6b71276e401a4d86b5adf545e45ea8951f7ba254
- Hollinger, J. C., Angra, K., & Halder, R. M. (2018). Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 11(2), 28–37. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843359/
- Kameyama, K., et al. (1996) Inhibitory effect of magnesium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate (VC-PMG) on melanogenesis in vitro and in vivo. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8543691
- Cichorek, M., Wachulska, M., Stasiewicz, A., & Tymińska, A. (2013). Skin melanocytes: biology and development. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 30(1), 30–41. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3834696