Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/12/2021
Have you ever noticed dark or gray-colored patches of skin on your cheeks, chin or other parts of your face?
Skin discoloration, or hyperpigmentation, is a common issue that can cause your skin to appear darker than normal. It’s caused by a variety of factors, including your age, level of sun exposure, hormone levels and certain underlying medical conditions.
While most skin discoloration is harmless, dealing with unwanted dark spots or patches can be a frustrating experience.
Luckily, skin discoloration is usually easy to treat. Below, we’ve explained how skin discoloration can develop, as well as the factors that may increase your risk of developing hyperpigmentation, age spots and other types of discoloration on your face.
We’ve also discussed how you can get rid of skin discoloration and maintain an even, consistent skin tone on your face and body.
Skin discoloration occurs when certain patches of your skin produce extra melanin, the natural pigment that gives your skin its color.
A variety of things can cause skin discoloration. Small dark spots may develop after an acne breakout, while skin conditions such as melasma may cause gray-brown patches to develop on your skin.
Sometimes, dark spots may develop on your skin over time. These are known as “age spots” and usually develop in areas that get lots of sunlight.
You may have a higher risk of developing discoloration on your face and other parts of your body if you have skin of color.
Skin discoloration is almost always treatable. Most of the time, you can treat changes in your skin color with a mix of skin care products, medications and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Skin discoloration is a general term that’s used to refer to changes that can occur in your skin’s pigmentation. Common forms of skin discoloration include hyperpigmentation (dark patches of skin) and hypopigmentation (patches of skin with less pigmentation).
You may notice skin discoloration in the form of age spots or other dark spots that can develop on your face, particularly in areas that are often exposed to the sun.
Other common examples of skin discoloration include larger dark patches of skin that form due to melasma, a common skin condition that can cause blotchy, brown patches on your face and body.
Skin discoloration can vary in severity. You may notice a few small dark spots on your cheeks, or large patches of obvious skin discoloration that develop over time.
Most skin discoloration develops when your skin produces extra melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its natural color.
Melanin is produced by melanocytes, special skin cells that are located in the base layer of your epidermis. As a protective pigment, melanin plays an important role in protecting your skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.
When your skin is exposed to UV radiation from direct sunlight, your melanocytes produce more melanin and your skin becomes darker.
Most forms of skin discoloration develop when certain areas of your skin produce more melanin than others.
For example, age spots (also referred to as solar lentigines) develop when melanin is produced in high concentrations by small clusters of cells. This can result in small spots on your skin with a darker color than the surrounding skin.
Similarly, experts believe that melasma -- a skin pigmentation disorder that causes larger areas of discolored skin -- occurs when melanocytes in some parts of your skin produce an excessive amount of color.
Although skin discoloration is a relatively common problem, certain factors may increase your risk of developing melasma, dark spots and other types of discoloration.
You may have a higher risk of developing skin discoloration if you:
Are female. Some forms of skin discoloration, such as melasma, are more common in women than in men. For example, women make up 90 percent of people who develop melasma.
Have skin of color. Skin discoloration tends to be more common in people with skin of color, which contains more melanocytes.
You may have a higher risk of developing melasma or other types of skin discoloration if you are of African American, Latin/Hispanic, Indian, North African, Middle Eastern, Asian or Mediterranean descent.
Have relatives with pigmentation disorders. Some skin pigmentation disorders, such as melasma, are more common in people with relatives who also have melasma.
Spent lots of time in direct sunlight. UV radiation from sunlight stimulates your skin to produce melanin. This can worsen age spots, melasma, moles and other forms of skin discoloration.
There are several ways to get rid of facial skin discoloration. It’s usually possible to treat mild to moderate skin discoloration using topical skin care products and medications such as retinoids, hydroquinone and peeling agents.
For more severe hyperpigmentation, you may benefit from undergoing a cosmetic procedure to resurface your skin.
If you have facial skin discoloration, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to discuss your symptoms. They’ll be able to recommend a suitable treatment for you and work with you to improve your skin tone.
Several skin care products and medications can lighten dark patches of your skin and improve your skin’s consistency. These include:
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a topical medication that stimulates your production of new skin cells. It’s commonly used to treat acne. Because of its effects on skin cells, tretinoin is also an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation.
Tretinoin is available as a prescription gel or cream. It’s also one of several ingredients in our Anti-Aging Cream, which is formulated specifically to improve your skin’s texture and appearance.
Hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is a topical skin lightening agent. It’s often used to treat skin discoloration issues like melasma, which we’ve explained in our complete guide to hydroquinone for melasma.
Although higher-strength hydroquinone creams require a prescription, you can purchase limited strength hydroquinone over the counter in many pharmacies.
Acid-based peeling agents. Skin care products containing certain acids, such as kojic acid, azelaic acid and salicylic acid, are sometimes used to lighten the skin by removing the outermost layer of cells.
These products are much milder than the more concentrated acids used in skin peeling procedures. However, it’s still important to take care when using over-the-counter peels, masks and other peeling agents.
Although these products and medications are effective, results aren’t immediate. For example, it may take three to six months for a medication like tretinoin to produce a noticeable improvement in the appearance of your skin.
Make sure to use your skin care products and medication consistently, even if you don’t notice a change right away. You can track your progress by taking photos of your skin every two to three weeks, then comparing your appearance over time.
Several different cosmetic procedures are used to lighten your skin and get rid of discoloration that can develop on your face and other parts of your body. These are typically performed by a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.
You may want to consider a cosmetic procedure if other treatment options, such as retinoids or over-the-counter peeling agents, haven’t improved your skin tone.
Common procedures for skin discoloration include:
Chemical peeling. This procedure involves removing dead or damaged skin cells using an acidic solution. After removing the outermost layer of skin, new skin grows in its place without hyperpigmentation, age spots, scarring, wrinkles or other issues.
Microdermabrasion. This procedure involves carefully removing the outermost layer of your skin using a minimally invasive instrument. This can treat hyperpigmentation and improve many other aspects of your skin’s appearance.
Laser skin resurfacing. This procedure involves carefully removing damaged areas of your skin using a laser. Like with other skin resurfacing procedures, this allows new skin cells to develop in place of the older, discolored skin.
Hyperpigmentation, melasma and other forms of skin discoloration can come back, especially if you don’t actively care for your skin. Use the following techniques to reduce your risk of dealing with recurring skin discoloration:
Protect yourself from the sun. Since sunlight triggers melasma and other types of skin discoloration, it’s important to protect your skin from the sun, even on days with overcast weather.
Protect yourself from the sun by using a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen whenever you spend time outdoors. If you’re at the beach or pool, make sure to use a waterproof sunscreen and reapply it after you go in the water.
To protect your face and eyes, wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, especially on bright, sunny days. This not only protects against discoloration -- it also helps to reduce your risk of developing wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Cover up affected areas of your body. If you’re prone to discoloration on your body as well as your face, cover it up with clothing when you’re outside. For extra protection, look for clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label.
Treat acne and other skin conditions. Dark spots often develop after acne breakouts or skin disorders such as psoriasis clear. By treating these conditions, you can reduce your risk of dealing with dark spots in the first place.
Our guide to the best acne treatments provides more information on the most effective ways to treat and prevent acne.
Avoid squeezing or popping pimples. If you’re prone to acne, avoid trying to pop your pimples during a breakout. This not only increases your risk of developing an infection -- it can also lead to unwanted acne scars and dark spots.
Use sensitive, gentle skin care products. Products that irritate your skin may worsen melasma and other forms of discoloration. Make sure to care for your skin using gentle skin care products that don’t cause stinging, burning or irritation.
Skin discoloration is a common problem that can affect your forehead, cheeks, jawline and other parts of your face. You may also develop discoloration on certain areas of your body, particularly those that are often exposed to sunlight.
Although discoloration usually isn’t a serious medical issue, it can have a real, noticeable impact on your appearance and self-esteem.
If you have skin discoloration, you can treat it using skin care products such as tretinoin, azelaic acid and others.
For more severe discoloration, consider talking to a dermatologist about cosmetic procedures to rejuvenate your skin and improve its color, texture and overall appearance.