Whether You Have Acne Or Dark Spots — Here's How To Treat It

Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent quality time with a highly magnified mirror, staring at that one thing — say, a dark spot or a zit that just won’t quit. Most of you probably have your hands to the sky, and that’s because skin imperfections can bring out a seriously obsessive side in us. Of course, if you love your skin just the way it is, keep doing that (and tell us your secrets). If not, though, we can help you take action.
Step one? Toss the magnifying mirror. Step two: Outsmart your skin by using certain ingredients for specific concerns (just be sure to consult your derm). Think: hyaluronic acid for a dry complexion and adapalene — the active ingredient in Differin Gel Acne Treatment — for any kind of acne (or the occasional breakout). To break down the ideal ingredients for treating the most common skin issues, we went to dermatologists S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD, founder of Miami Skin Institute, and Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. Bye forevs, skin issues.
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Illustrated by Petra Eriksson.
The Problem: Undereye Circles
The Ingredient: Vitamin C
Sometimes it seems like you could sleep for days and still wake up to dark undereye circles. What gives? “Over time, low-grade inflammation revs up pigment production, which makes the undereye area look dark,” explains Dr. Zeichner. But even if you went to bed at a reasonable time last night, something as simple as being too rough when removing your eye makeup can exacerbate your dark circles. Enter vitamin C, which both disrupts the production of pigment and brightens the pigmentation that’s already there. Plus, it kills two birds with one stone: Vitamin C is a cofactor of collagen production, so it also helps strengthen skin, minimizing fine lines in the process.
Illustrated by Petra Eriksson.
The Problem: Dark Spots
The Ingredient: Hydroquinone
Unless you live in a bubble, dark spots (aka an overproduction of pigment) are impossible to avoid. “UV light exposure from the sun, pollution, and even heat and infrared radiation are common culprits,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Even excessive exposure to heat from your oven while cooking [can cause dark spots].” Hydroquinone interferes with said pigment production and works to lighten dark spots. Since it basically bleaches them, it can be harsh on skin, so apply it every other night to start. And since sunlight will only lead to more pigment production (ultimately negating the benefits of hydroquinone), just be sure to stay on top of your daily SPF.
Once your dark spots disappear, switch to a gentler brightening ingredient, like kojic acid. Using hydroquinone on a long-term basis can cause skin discoloration by lightening it too much. That said, it is the gold standard for brightening for a reason, so try an over-the-counter version, which maxes out at 2%, and stop usage once you notice a difference in dark spots.
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The Problem: Acne
The Ingredient: Adapalene
If you haven’t thought much about your pimples besides the obvious — that they’re the worst — you’re in good company. But those who struggle with acne may benefit from doing some research; by learning what causes it, you're in a better position to treat it. To put it simply, acne occurs when sticky skin cells trap oil within the hair follicle and create a bacteria free-for-all, which in turn promotes inflammation. “Vitamin A derivatives, known as topical retinoids, help prevent cells from sticking together and blocking pores, essentially keeping the pipes clear,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “They also help reduce inflammation and can treat existing pimples, while preventing new ones from developing.” Try an acne-fighting retinoid like adapalene, a prescription-strength ingredient found in Differin Gel Acne Treatment. Now available over-the-counter, this FDA-approved acne treatment effectively targets both those clogged pores and inflammation by normalizing skin-cell turnover. Now that’s a win-win.
Illustrated by Petra Eriksson.
The Problem: Dryness
The Ingredient: Hyaluronic Acid
Dry skin is like the Pandora’s box of skin gripes: Dullness, a rough texture, and fine lines often come along with it. So how do you avoid this undesirable package deal? Keep your skin hydrated with hyaluronic acid. “Hyaluronic acid's molecules sit on your skin's surface and retain surface moisture, offering a more plumped and hydrated texture,” says Dr. Jegasothy. An added bonus: The ingredient also minimizes the appearance of wrinkles.
Illustrated by Petra Eriksson.
The Problem: Dullness
The Ingredient: Glycolic Acid
Exfoliation is the secret to instantly brightening your skin. But some exfoliating methods, like gritty scrubs, can work almost too well, damaging or irritating the skin's natural barrier in the process. To exfoliate gently yet thoroughly, try adding a glycolic acid into your routine via a cleanser or serum. “Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin by safely removing dead-skin buildup, allowing fresh skin to surface,” says Dr. Jegasothy. “It can also help plump and hydrate skin cells, giving the appearance of an overall glow.” And who doesn’t want fresh, glowing skin?
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Illustrated by Petra Eriksson.
The Problem: Redness
The Ingredient: Green-Tea Extract
Known for their protective and reparative properties, there's a reason why derms tout the benefits of antioxidants. But one kind of antioxidant is especially good at reducing redness: green-tea polyphenols or, specifically, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (ECGC). These have an anti-inflammatory effect, which reduces short-term redness, according to Dr. Jegasothy. “Plus, the additional antioxidant benefit prevents chronic DNA damage from UVR radiation, which can manifest as chronic skin redness, as well.”