Getting rid of hyperpigmentation — unwanted pigment left behind from sun exposure, acne scars, and aging — takes work. While IPL laser treatments, micro-needling, and microdermabrasion are all effective in-office options for treating stubborn areas, upgrading your at-home regimen with complexion-correcting active ingredients is key. Since hydroquinone, a former industry-favorite for skin-lightening, has come under recent scrutiny, we are on the hunt for effective alternatives. Craig Kraffert, M.D., of Redding Derm explains, “Hydroquinone [has] fallen out of favor due to questionable safety and occasionally harsh side effects like redness, burning, or blisters.” Yikes! Four experts in cosmetic dermatology — David Shafer, M.D., FACS of Shafer Plastic Surgery in NYC, Lily Talakoub, MD, FAAD of McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, Sejal Shah, MD, FAAD of Smarter Skin Dermatology, and Kraffert — have scouted the best hydroquinone-free skin tone-correcting ingredients to use instead. Prepare to get schooled on how to treat, fade, and correct all forms of hyperpigmentation (think acne scars, sun spots, and more) with the picks below.

tyrosinase inhibitors

1. Kojic Acid: Kojic acid, a powerful skin-brightener and byproduct of fermentation, is often paired with an unconventional world-class illuminator — sake. Talakoub explains, “Kojic acid not only suppresses tyrosinase (an enzyme that increases pigment creation) activity, but it also helps topical treatments penetrate more deeply.” Both ingredients in the serum will boost dull complexions and improve unevenness in tone. Brit + Co Pick: 100% Pure Brightening Serum ($47)

2. Alpha Arbutin: Pigment-regulating licorice root and other phyto-botanical brighteners join forces with alpha arbutin, a derivative of bearberry in this extract. Kraffert describes it as, “A naturally occurring cousin to hydroquinone with excellent brightening qualities.” Brit + Co Pick: Grown Alchemist Brightening Serum Photo-Complex & Rumex Leaf Extract ($79)

3. Peptides: Anti-aging peptides work with niacinamide, vitamin c, and retinol, to yield visibly improved results over time. “Tetrapeptide-30 helps illuminate the skin. [The treatment] helps reduce skin discoloration and minimize the appearance of dark spots, leaving the complexion bright and fresh,” Shah reveals. For sensitive skin, try the peptide Lumixyl in Envy Medical Lumixyl Brightening Pads ($45). Brit + Co Pick: SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum ($154)


4. Beta Hydroxy Acids: “An exfoliator increases cell turnover,” notes Talakoub. “Increasing turnover causes pigmented cells to exfoliate off.” This topical treatment uses BHAs, like salicylic acid, along with AHAs to resurface and heal acne scars up to 50 percent faster. Brit + Co Pick: Renée Rouleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel ($41)

5. Alpha Hydroxy Acids: To channel the power of AHAs at home, Talakoub recommends an exfoliating glycolic acid peel. For deeper resurfacing, consider an in-office chemical peel. The dermatologist notes, “Most over-the-counter skin preparations have six to 10 percent glycolic acid. Chemical peels, which should be applied by dermatologists, have concentrations ranging from 20 to 70 percent.” Brit + Co Pick: InstaNatural Glycolic Peel ($25)

6. Retinol: “Retinoids increase cell turnover to help disperse pigment. Some have [also] been shown to inhibit melanin synthesis,” Shah states. This vitamin A-rich oil will score you smoother skin texture, refined pores, and improved collagen production, as it helps your complexion hit refresh. Hint: For a retinol alternative, try Pai Bioregenerate Rosehip Oil ($40). Brit + Co Pick: Savor Beauty Step #3: Carrot Rose Serum ($74)

melanogenesis inhibitors

7. Vitamin C: This holy grail serum uses antioxidant power to protect, repair, and brighten the complexion like no other. Shah adds another regenerating benefit derived from the beloved skin vitamin: “Collagen formation.” P.S. THD ascorbate, the stable form of vitamin C in this serum, is so powerful it’s prescription-strength in Japan. Brit + Co Pick: Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum ($85)

8. Chaga: Meet the shroom-derived pigment-fighter, black chaga. According to Talakoub, “It is a potent antioxidant [with] both anti-inflammatory and anti-pigment properties.” Naturally containing high levels of melanin, the ingredient helps to reverse the effects of previous sun damage and prevents the spread of melanin in the skin. This award-winning reparative serum also stimulates collagen production, diminishes lines, and is made from totally clean ingredients. Brit + Co Pick: Plantioxidants Chaga & Ginseng Serum ($110)

9. Heparan Sulfate: Heparan Sulfate Analog (HSA) is a patented skincare ingredient that helps this anti-aging, nighttime serum improve the tone, texture, and elasticity of the skin. Shafer adds, “[The serum] has sustained release retinol, which helps with exfoliation, and HSA, which helps with skin rejuvenation and pigment correction.” Brit + Co Pick: Senté Bio Complete Serum ($179)

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