How To Even Out Your Skin Tone Once & For All

One of the most common skin-care woes we hear from both readers and friends is an uneven complexion — more specifically, those dark spots left over from our acne-ridden teenage years. (Or, um, three months ago.) To make matters worse, they are seriously difficult to get rid of, and challenging to conceal, once you've got them.
Enter the dark-spot corrector. If you don't already have one in your skin-care regimen, it's time. There are plenty of over-the-counter options out there, but it's important to know what kind of formula to look for and how to use it properly. Hydroquinone is still considered the gold-standard lightening agent, says dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, and you can find it in a variety of products. The over-the-counter strength tends to be 2%, while prescription-strength is somewhere around 4%.
But there are other options: Dr. Shah says you can also look for kojic acid, licorice root extract, vitamin C, niacinamide, soy, and retinoids when battling dark spots. Jessica Weiser, MD, of New York Dermatology Group, suggests formulas with turmeric, lactic acid, and papaya for their skin-brightening properties.
Once you've made your selection, there are some things to be cautious of. "The most common issue with many lightening agents is that they can irritate the skin, leading to redness, flaking, dryness, or even itchy or burning sensations," Dr. Shah says. Women with darker skin tones need to take extra care. "Whether citric, lactic, or glycolic, using acids on dark skin tones should be done with caution, as excess peeling of the skin can conversely lead to hyper-pigmentation, or can cause burns that may lead to lightening or darkening of the skin," Dr. Weiser says.
Both doctors agree that before starting any lightening regimen, it's important to discuss with your dermatologist what course is right for you. Dr. Shah also stresses the importance of using sun protection in conjunction with your dark-spot treatment, as the active ingredients can make your skin more vulnerable to burns.
With all this in mind, we've rounded up a handful of dark-spot correctors and broken them down by the number of brightening ingredients they contain — some utilize just one, the others comprise a few. Click through to find the product that's right for you, consult with your derm, and you'll be kissing those dark spots goodbye in no time.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
1 of 26
This TSA-friendly serum stick makes for easy, smooth application no matter where you are — which customers can't stop raving about in the reviews. With just a few swipes and a little patting into place, the formula melts into your skin and works to even tone — thanks to Swiss garden cress sprout extract — and instantly gives you plump, glowing skin thanks to a peptide complex.
2 of 26
Featuring Dr. Shah's beloved licorice root extract, which works to soothe skin and eliminate dark spots, this gentle azelaic acid booster targets uneven skin tone with a formula that isn't sticky or slimy, but surprisingly cloud-like, gliding onto the skin and leaving it matte. You can add this to a moisturizer, or use it alone before sunscreen and makeup.
3 of 26
Though it smells like a literal campfire, this serum doesn't mess around. With its potent cocktail of THD ascorbate, which is 50 times more powerful for evening skin tone and texture than traditional vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid, spread just a tiny bit of this on your skin and wake up with a glowier, firmer complexion.
4 of 26
Loaded with extracts from blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates, and strawberries, this gently exfoliates and brightens the complexion — while smelling like a delicious berry smoothie.
5 of 26
Both acne-prone and sensitive skin types will rejoice over this formula: It's loaded with gentle AHAs and BHAs, so it fights active acne and prevents future blemishes while also helping to repair leftover acne marks and dark spots, so your complexion will appear smooth and clear.
6 of 26
This powerful cult-classic formula — which has racked up 130,000 "loves" on Sephora — is packed with vitamin C, so it brightens, corrects uneven tone, and creates a radiant complexion that only gets better with time.
7 of 26
This little bottle contains activated vitamin C to clarify your skin and help to prevent future dark spots. Plus, it's 100% fragrance-free, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin.
8 of 26
This lightweight serum uses retinol, vitamin E, and a cocktail of antioxidants to diminish dark spots and fight free-radical damage.
9 of 26
Fan of oil-based skin care? Dr. Dennis Gross' serum is a great option. This formula contains retinol, which not only helps brighten the skin, but also fights fine lines and wrinkles.
10 of 26
Osmia's dark-spot corrector is formulated with papaya extract (a favorite of Dr. Weiser's). Natural skin-care devotees will also love that it's made with 85% certified organic ingredients.
11 of 26
From the name to the ingredients list, this hard-working serum gets straight to the point: Packed with collagen-boosting, dark spot-fading vitamins C and E, plus a hydrating boost from hyaluronic acid and antioxidants from pomegranate, gotu kola, and blueberry extracts, it's a no-frills formula that does exactly what it says it will.
12 of 26
Clarins' formula relies on acerola extract, which is high in vitamin C — making it a stepping stone on the path to skin perfection, indeed.
13 of 26
Created with Japanese cherry blossoms, this skin-evening serum from Shiseido helps to diminish the look of both dark spots and hyperpigmentation with the brand's SAKURAResist technology.
14 of 26
This high-potency, reasonably-priced tone corrector combines both vitamin C and a concentrated form of retinol to improve skin texture and nix stubborn dark spots over time.
15 of 26
Serums aren't the only way to rid yourself of dark spots: This overnight mask works while you sleep, so you wake up feeling (and looking) radiant.
16 of 26
Kojic acid, which is made from mushrooms, is what gives this lightweight serum its brightening capabilities. People with sensitive skin might want to reach for this bottle first — it's made with hyaluronic acid to help keep skin hydrated and calm.
17 of 26
Mela-D utilizes both glycolic and kojic acids to diminish those dark spots. Glycolic acid is also a potent acne-fighter, so you're fighting those spots before they even start.
18 of 26
This gel-serum hybrid is packed with AHAs that help smooth out uneven complexions without irritating skin.
19 of 26
Remember how Dr. Shah called hydroquinone the gold standard of brightening ingredients? It's in here, along with glycolic acid to remove dead skin cells, which allows the hydroquinone to penetrate more deeply.
20 of 26
In addition to dead skin cell-busting retinol, this highly-concentrated formula also contains niacinamide, which Dr. Shah says is one of the best ingredients you can slather on to help with hyperpigmentation.
21 of 26
Have sensitive or dry skin? This formula is fragrance-free and packed with hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated, plus alpha arbutin, seaweed, red tea extracts, and grapefruit oil to brighten skin and fade dark spots.
22 of 26
Colbert MD's serum comes highly recommended thanks to a mix of skin-brightening glycolic acid, antioxidants, and gotu kola, an herb with anti-inflammatory benefits.

Colbert MD Stimulate Serum, $160, available at Colbert MD.
23 of 26
There's no such thing as a magic eraser for dark spots — but this option from 100% Pure comes pretty damn close. It's packed with vitamin C to help brighten away discoloration and aloe vera to hydrate skin, which is important, as well-moisturized complexions have better cell turnover.
24 of 26
This organic face serum packs all the brightening ingredients you need in one environmentally-friendly, skin-friendly package.
25 of 26
There’s a very good reason that those in the know swear by this exceptional formula: It works. The high-potency lactic acid is crucial for exfoliating dead skin cells to reveal smoother, fresher skin that can’t seem to even remember a time it ever had a fine line or breakout.
26 of 26
This correcting treatment is formulated with 2% hydroquinone to fade hyperpigmentation and melasma. Unlike other formulas, which tend to be harsh on sensitive skin, squalene and antioxidants work to soothe while the star ingredient increases cell turnover.

More from Skin Care