1. Fade age spots
The most effective skin lightener is hydroquinone, which has long been used to bleach age spots or dark spots. Hydroquinone can be found at up to 2 percent concentrations in over-the-counter products; higher concentrations are usually in prescription creams. There has been some concern over links between hydroquinone and cancer, but the American Academy of Dermatology holds that levels of up to 4 percent are safe. Dermatologists recommend that you spot treat with hydroquinone products, applying them only to dark areas and discontinuing use once those areas lighten.
Dabbed on daily, hydroquinone products could take four to eight months to fade spots, and sometimes up to a year. Using a bleaching cream together with a glycolic acid exfoliator can help speed up the sloughing of pigmented cells. Be sure to use sunscreen daily as well, so spots don’t return.
Products containing retinol, niacinamide, kojic acid, and glucosamine may also lighten (but not completely eliminate) dark spots.
2. Opt for an in-office treatment
Talk to your dermatologist about an in-office peel. Peels reduce skin discoloration, freckles, and age spots as well as other agers. Lighter peels—ones that only penetrate the outer layer of the skin—are generally alpha hydroxy acid solutions, but many dermatologists also offer peels that reach into the deeper layers of the skin to remove damaged cells.
Peels of all varieties require some commitment (including financial: $100 to $300 for a light one, and up to $1,000 for the deepest) on your part. Your skin will be only slightly red after a light peel (called a “lunchtime peel,” both because it takes only 30 minutes to an hour and because you can return to work afterward). Deeper peels require healing time and necessitate follow-up visits.
3. Lighten up with laser
If you’re willing to pay more, doctor’s office laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments can give you a faster result than a cream. It takes just seconds to break up melanin on individual spots with the Nd:YAG laser (a scab may form, but should fall off within a few days). For larger patches of pigmentation, fractional lasers (Fraxel; there are three levels, from least to most skin-renewing) have begun replacing IPL treatments as derms’ go-to treatments.
Both treatments will even out skin tone—and smooth wrinkles!—but lasers direct more heat, yielding dramatic clearing in three or four sessions versus IPL’s six, says Ariel Ostad, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. The catch: Fraxel:Restore, the type that’s right for the job, leaves skin red for a few days, while IPL is a true “lunchtime” procedure. Costs can range from $300 to $500 for one IPL treatment to $750 to $2,500 for one Fraxel treatment.
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