Hyperpigmentation on Legs: Dark Spots BEGONE!

Dark spots are embarrassing. And they’re even more embarrassing when they’re located on your legs. In other words, Dark Spots + Shorts = Non-stop Stares. Ugh.

Luckily there are a bunch of strategies that can help fade and eventually eliminate your dark spots. The most popular of these strategies is to combine exfoliants (like glycolic acid) with treatments (like kojic acid, niacinamide, retinoids, etc). And of course, don’t forget to slather on sunscreen—forgetting will only make things way worse.

Check out the rest of the article for more tips and tricks.

What Causes It?

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) develops from an overproduction of melanin—you know, the thing that gives your skin its pigment.

But what kicks melanin into high-gear in the first place?

Well, skin damage (like acne, mosquito bites, and/or folliculitis) triggers a process called melanogenesis. It’s pretty complicated, but here’s a breakdown of some of its key players:

  1. The process begins inside melanocytes—the oddly-shaped cells that live in the lowest layer of your epidermis (the basal layer).
  2. Within melanocytes, you’ll find an enzyme called tyrosinase. THIS is the enzyme that jump starts melanin production.
  3. After tyrosinase joins forces with other compounds (like L-DOPA and dopaquinone), the resulting melanin is transferred to the surface of your skin via keratinocytes.
  4. Et voila, a dark spot is born!

Watch this video for a more in-depth (and science-y) summary:

Who’s At Risk?

Not everyone reacts to the same thing in the same way.

And PIH is no different.

A review from the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology found that dark spots are more common in African Americans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, etc. Unsurprisingly, this same review also found that it’s more common in skin types that range from Fitzpatrick IV to Fitzpatrick VI.

Strategy #1: Use a Vitamin C Serum

Vitamin C is a friggin’ workhorse. It can protect your skin from pollution, UV damage, collagen degradation—not to mention, it can also help fade dark spots.

Here’s how it works:

  1. It blocks tyrosinase—the enzyme that jump starts melanin production.
  2. As an antioxidant, Vitamin C reduces the oxidative reactions that are key to melanin formation.

Now that you know the “hows”, let’s get into some research results:

That being said, on its own, Vitamin C isn’t the end-all-be-all treatment. It’s popularly paired with glycolic acid and niacinamide for optimal results.

From personal experience: I find that using Vitamin C (on its own) works better on new dark spots, not so much on old ones.

Strategy #2: Exfoliate with Glycolic Acid

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Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant derived from sugar.  

One study found that a series of glycolic acid peels (along with the right skincare regimen) can drastically speed up the healing process when it comes to PIH.

Other studies paired glycolic acid with other treatment like hydroquinone, retinoids, azelaic acid, etc. You see, when you slough off the dead cells from the surface of your skin, treatments have a better chance at penetration, making them that much more effective.

Reminder: Acids are no joke. Either use a low concentration or go to a dermatologist for a proper peel. Otherwise, you just might induce more hyperpigmentation.

Product pick: Going all out for your legs can get pretty expensive—after all, there’s a lot of surface area to cover. So finding lotions that contain AHA’s are often your best bet at affordability. Alpha Hydroxy has a 12% glycolic lotion that priced right and has rave reviews (check it out here on Amazon).

Related: 7 Budget-Friendly Chemical Exfoliants [Drugstore Edition]

Strategy #3: Try Niacinamide

Niacinamide is an active form of niacin (aka vitamin B3).

Research has shown that topical applications of niacinamide can inhibit the transfer from melanin-containing melanosomes to keratinocytes, thereby reducing hyperpigmentation (and inducing a skin lightening effect). Simply put, the melanin that’s made in the lower levels of your skin aren’t transferred to the surface of your skin.

According to a clinical trial conducted in Japan, niacinamide decreased hyperpigmentation significantly (and increased skin lightness) after just 4 weeks of use.

Another clinical trial compared a 4% niacinamide cream to a 4% hydroquinone cream. And guess what? Niacinamide was on par with HQ. That’s right, the niacinamide group displayed a 44% improvement while the HQ group displayed a 55% improvement. Beyond that, niacinamide was better tolerated—meaning it had less side effects—than HQ.

What else does niacinamide do for skin?

A lot:

  • It reduces enlarged pores (and oily skin)
  • It brightens dullness
  • It calms inflammation

Strategy #4: Lighten with Kojic Acid

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Kojic acid is a fungus. Okay, that’s not exactly true. It’s a chemical derived from fungus.

And much like a lot of the other items on this list, kojic acid curbs hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase.

In terms of clinical studies, when compared to a hydroquinone + glycolic acid formulation, kojic acid + glycolic acid performed just as well—no statistical different to see here, folks.

A similar study found that adding kojic acid to a gel containing hydroquinone and glycolic acid performed slightly better than a gel with just HQ and glycolic acid.

There isn’t that much research about kojic acid. And the research that’s there doesn’t cover how it works on its own. So if you’re using this as a treatment, you might want to pair it with something a little more reliable.

Fair warning: This stuff is pretty irritating–it’s prone to cause allergies.

Strategy #5: Slap on Some Retinoids

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A.

According to a 2006 review published by Dermatologic Therapy, retinoids reduce hyperpigmentation by:

  1. Decreasing the amount of melanin that reaches the surface of your skin (melanosome transfer)
  2. Shedding dead skin cells (cell turnover)
  3. Setting the stage for permeability, so that other treatments penetrate into your skin more easily
  4. Inhibiting tyrosinase (the enzyme that starts melanin synthesis)

A 40 week study found that retinoic acid reduced hyperpigmentation significantly. The group that received the .1% retinoic cream noticed a 40% reduction in hyperpigmentation, while the control only saw an 18% reduction.  

Another type of retinoid called tazarotene was evaluated for its acne and hyperpigmentation busting effects over an 18-week period. It was concluded that the .1% tazarotene cream made a significant difference—I mean, just look at these pics!

Okay so, retinoids are great. What’s the catch?

Well, there are two problems I have with this stuff.

Number 1: You have to get a prescription for the good stuff (although adapalene is available over the counter via Differin gel – check it out here on Amazon). Number 2: It’s expensive. If you have tons of dark marks on your legs and you’re on a shoestring budget, you might have to look elsewhere.

Fair Warning: Some people find the combination of retinoids and acids (like AHA’s and BHA’s) to be irritating. So you may want to avoid using them in the same routine. And, if you’re getting a peel, don’t use retinoids for a week (or more depending on what your dermatologist says) prior to your peel.

Strategy #6: Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is often considered to be the gentler (and less irritating) counterpart to hydroquinone.

In fact, a 2011 study determined that a 20% azelaic acid cream performed better than a 4% hydroquinone cream in regards to treating melasma (over a 2-month timeframe). That’s pretty cool, especially since azelaic acid is better tolerated.

Related: The Top 3 Over-the-Counter Azelaic Acid Products To Buy Right Now

There’s another thing that makes it better than HQ.

At high concentrations, HQ is cytotoxic (that’s why HQ products max out at a measly 4%). Azelaic acid, on the other hand, isn’t. It’s safe to use even in 20% concentrations.  

Strategy #7: Stop Picking Your Skin

As a former picker, I know how tempting it can be. You see something that doesn’t belong there (like a bug bite, an ingrown hair, or a dark spot). And you think that you can scratch, pluck, and/or pop it away.

But that’s not how it works.

When you pick your skin, you’re injuring yourself. Which can trigger melanin production, leaving you with an even bigger dark spot.

Do yourself a favor and keep your hands at bay.

Strategy #8: Wear Sunscreen + Protective Clothing

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It’s always important to wear sunscreen. But it’s even more important to wear sunscreen when you’re dealing with dark spots.

The thing is, a lot of these treatments (particularly retinoids) will make you super sensitive to the sun’s harmful rays. In which case, exposing your dark spots to the sun might make them even darker.

Personally, I don’t let my legs see sunlight when I’m dealing with dark spots. Protective clothing—in my case, jeans—will also work to keep excessive hyperpigmentation at bay.

Strategy #5: Cover It Up with Makeup

In the real world, you might not have a full 8-weeks to baby your dark spots. Maybe you’re going to a wedding and you have to wear a short dress. Or maybe you’re going to the beach and you don’t want to be the weirdo wearing pants.

Sometimes, you have to fake it until you make it.

And the only way you can do that (other than hiding your legs) is to use cover-up.

Personally, I use Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs (click here to see it on Amazon). It’s not perfect, but it makes my dark spots look a hell of a lot better. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s ultra-cheap.

A Word on HQ

Hydroquinone is still considered to be the “gold standard” in treating hyperpigmentation. Yet, it’s incredibly polarizing.

In 2006, the FDA considered banning HQ due to carcinogenic concerns. The study that led up to the proposed ban wasn’t solid—it was based on a rat model. So most dermatologists were weary of it.

Regardless of the FDA’s proposed ban, HQ can cause some unwanted (and hard to get rid of) side effects.

There’s a condition called exogenous ochronosis that’s associated with long term HQ use and sun exposure. It’s a pretty ugly disorder. Think hyperpigmentation on steroids.

Oh and it doesn’t end there.

HQ is also associated with things like nail discoloration, hypopigmentation (loss of skin color in certain areas), impaired wound healing, and the list goes on.

Wrapping It Up

You don’t need to use all of these strategies at once. Just pick one or two (exfoliant + treatment) and move your way up from there. Dark spots are pretty stubborn, so it might take up to a month (often more) to see even the slightest lightening effect.

I wish you luck on your journey to the light side!

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