A Dermatologist Says This Is the Best Way to Treat Hyperpigmentation

Beauty sleep just got way more exciting.

By Langa Chinyoka
shanika hillocks, skincare, BIPOC, wellness

What if you could get a more even complexion while you sleep? By now, most of us know the benefits of good sleep hygiene. Better sleep translates to better mood, overall health, and yes, even skin. Turns out, beauty sleep is more than just a fairytale. From supplements to face masks, adding certain products to your nighttime routine can basically help you sleep your way to clearer, brighter skin. And almost every dermatologist we know recommends retinol as part of your nighttime regimen, especially if you’ve dealt with stubborn dark spots. The best retinols for hyperpigmentation can help make skin more even, as well as helping with fading scars.

Starting your retinol journey can be intimidating. All that talk about “the retinol purge” or having to get a prescription for tretinoin — I’ve been there. To ease myself into it, I started small. I researched the best retinols for hyperpigmentation and I started there. And while retinol is also great for anti-aging and acne, I wanted products to help fade my scars.

Retinol works by increasing cell turnover, stimulating collagen production, and inhibiting excess melainin production. All of which is to say: any retinol product acts against hyperpigmentation. In my journey, I wanted the best retinols for hyperpigmentation — products formulated with ingredient combos made specifically for the results I was looking for. To explain the skin science behind this, I talked to Dr. Michelle Henry, a dermatologist based in New York, about all things retinol and hyperpigmentation. She even gave me her dermatologist-approved product picks — so I’ll definitely be adding them to my routine. Read on for the best retinols for hyperpigmentation.

Non Toxic Beauty
Michelle Henry, MD

Michelle Henry, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and Harvard-trained Mohs surgeon. She provides exceptional care for her patients at Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan in the Midtown East neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Her areas of expertise include high-risk skin cancer treatments, aesthetic surgery, and treating skin of color, and she specializes in Mohs micrographic, reconstructive, and cosmetic surgery. 

How does retinol treat hyperpigmentation? How do you know if a retinol product can effectively treat hyperpigmentation?

Retinoids are different forms of Vitamin A. Retinol is a type of retinoid that you can usually find over the counter. Different retinol products have different strengths and are combined with different ingredients to achieve specific goals. But no matter the product, Dr. Henry says a key characteristic of retinoids is their ability to “block the synthesis of epidermal melanin.”

“Retinoids also help enhance skin cell turnover, reducing the overall appearance of hyperpigmentation,” she adds. “The most important factor that determines whether or not a retinol product can effectively treat hyperpigmentation, is the amount of active retinoic acid found in the formula. Higher concentrations of retinoic acid have stronger effects on the skin.”

skin of color considerations

How do you use retinol to treat hyperpigmentation?

“Ease into your retinol journey,” Dr. Henry advises. “The overuse of these products may lead to skin irritation, dryness, itchiness, and patchiness. Start by applying the retinol cream once or twice a week. Over time, you can build up the amount of retinol introduced to the skin.”

Dr. Henry also urges anyone using retinol to practice patience. Keep up a consistent routine, even if it takes weeks to see results. Depending on the concentration of retinol you’re using and your unique skin, it might be a while before you see progress. But retinol is working to transform your skin at the cellular level. With consistency and patience, those stubborn scars will eventually fade and it will be well worth the wait.

Does retinol cause irritation? Who should use retinol?

Though many see retinol as a holy grail product, its efficacy is in its strength. Therefore, some skin types and skin conditions might be too sensitive for some of the stronger retinol products. But don’t worry, some of the best retinols for hyperpigmentation are formulated specifically to work for sensitive skin without doing further damage. 

“As these formulas stimulate new skin cell production, it may take a few weeks before the skin gets adjusted to the powerful Vitamin A derivatives,” warns Dr. Henry. “If your skin is naturally sensitive, opt for over-the-counter retinol creams that have a lower concentration of active retinoic acid.”

best retinol serums

What other ingredients work with retinol to treat hyperpigmentation?

When you introduce retinol to your routine, you might experience dryness. It’s important to pack your routine with nourishing ingredients like antioxidants, peptides, and ceramides to help your skin heal and repair itself while protecting the moisture barrier.

Dr. Henry adds that moisture also helps prevent further dark spots and scarring. “As retinol can initially be drying or irritating, this can cause hyperpigmentation on the skin, so it’s necessary to add regular moisture,” she says. Expert tip: “if you are particularly sensitive you can moisturize both before and after applying.”

Also, look for products that contain a synergistic blend of scar-fading ingredients that help accelerate cell turnover while reducing irritation. Hyaluronic acid is a great addition to your retinol routine because it packs the skin with moisture. Niacinamide also works alongside retinol to soothe irritation while powerfully fading scars. Other antioxidants have a similar effect.

Plus, while you should switch off the days you dedicate to using AHA/BHA products with the days you use your retinol products, some formulas seamlessly blend exfoliants with retinol to give you the benefits of both without extra irritation.

Read on to discover some of the best retinols for hyperpigmentation, including Dr. Henry’s picks for different skin types and concerns.

retinol night cream

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

If you’re looking to add a specific ingredient into your routine, The Ordinary makes it easy. Dr. Henry recommends this water-free formula that glides onto your skin.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane, $7.50

The First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

With 0.25% retinol, this is Dr. Henry’s pick for retinol first-timers. The hyaluronic acid, antioxidant, and ceramide blend keep your skin nourished as the retinol does its magic.

The First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate, $58

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex

Dr. Henry recommends this complex for more experienced retinol users. It’s “suitable for all skin types,” she assures, “but more powerful.”

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex, $96

Common Heir 0.2% Retinol Serum

These retinol capsules get the job done. This gateway serum is designed specifically for melanin-rich skin, targeting hyperpigmentation with a mixture of retinol, barrier-building botanicals, and squalane and algae for deep nourishment.

Common Heir 0.2% Retinol Serum, $88

The Whistling Thorn Retinol Cleanser

Double down on retinol in your nighttime routine with this unique cleanser. The unique amino acid and retinol combination turns into a rich foam that gets deep into your pores to jumpstart your routine. It targets uneven complexion and dryness for flawless skin in one foamy step.

The Whistling Thorn Cleanser, $25

The Inkey List Retinol Serum

This simple but effective formula is a no-frills way to add retinol into your routine. Released slowly over a long time period, the retinol in this serum works to target all your skin concerns.

The Inkey List Retinol Serum, $10.99

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum

Retinol is often misunderstood because it can feel inaccessible. But this drugstore powerhouse serum combines retinol and hyaluronic acid for a lightweight and effective serum anyone can add to their routine.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum, $24.99

Sunday Riley High Dose Retinoid Serum

High efficacy is the name of the game at Sunday Riley. This retinoid serum is no exception. Antioxidants brighten while retinol reveals new, even skin. You’ll wake up with your best skin.

Sunday Riley High Dose Retinoid Serum, $85

retinol night cream

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Serum

How much retinol should you be using? This innovative controlled release delivery system gives you the perfect dose of this high-quality, quick-absorbing formula. You’ll feel the hydration immediately, then you’ll see the scar-fading results faster than other, less potent, formulas.

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Serum, $60

Shani Darden Retinol Reform Anti-Aging Serum

While you shouldn’t apply retinol after your acid toner, Darden’s celeb-approved serum is an elegant synthesis of AHAs and retinol to exfoliate the top layer of skin while going deeper to encourage cell renewal.

Shani Darden Retinol Reform Anti-Aging Serum, $88

Youth To The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum

Niacinamide and retinol are some of the best ingredients to fade hyperpigmentation. Together, they pack a punch to balance tone and texture without irritation.

Youth To The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum, $68

Klur Sculpture + A: Form and Correct Overnight Enrichment Creme

This high potency creme is packed full of sumptuously luxe ingredients like plum seed oil and jojoba for fortification, lactic acid for exfoliation, and retinol for transformation. Heal your skin barrier and your hyperpigmentation at the same time.

Klur Sculpture + A: Form and Correct Overnight Enrichment Creme; $150