Retinol For Dark Spots: 6 Things To Know

“Dark spots can be stubborn, but retinol is a powerhouse when it comes to brightening your complexion.”

  • Shani Darden, Esthetician

As an esthetician, I treat many different skin issues, but one of the biggest concerns my clients have is the sudden appearance of dark spots. They seem to pop upon the skin from out of nowhere, and they can make your skin tone appear uneven. 

My favorite at-home remedy for dark spots is retinol. I’ll tell you why, explain how it works, and teach you how to use it the right way. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A and belongs to the retinoid family. Some of the most powerful skincare products on the market contain retinol, and even medical-grade dermatology treatments for acne, such as Accutane and tretinoin, come from the retinoid family.

Plant-based retinol sources, like the form of retinol I use in my Retinol Reform, are cruelty-free, natural, and more easily and readily absorbed by your body. 

Why Retinol Works

Retinol supports cell turnover, which is the rate at which your skin renews itself.

As we age, our skin cell turnover happens more slowly. When you’re a child, you basically get new skin every month. In adults, it can take as long as 45-50 days.

When your skin takes longer to renew, it can cause problems such as:

  • Blemishes. Pores get clogged with dead skin cells that are still clinging to the epidermis and haven’t been sloughed away or pushed off by new skin cells, resulting in pimples.

  • Fine lines and wrinkles. Aging skin contains less collagen, which is why supporting skin cell turnover is crucial for anti-aging products. 

  • Uneven skin tone and dark spots. New skin helps push damaged skin away, but if renewal takes too long, dark spots can become even darker. 

Because retinol speeds up the new skin-making process, it’s a great ingredient to help improve the appearance of hard-to-fade spots.

What Are Dark Spots?

Age spots, liver spots, or sun spots; whatever you choose to call them, dark spots are areas on your skin that don’t match the rest of your complexion and make your skin tone appear uneven. Vitamin E serums and brightening creams may make the spot look slightly less noticeable, but the at-home heavy hitter for fading the appearance of dark spots is retinol.

What Causes Dark Spots?

My clients usually come to me with dark spots from one of three main sources: acne scars, sun exposure, and hormonal changes.

  • Acne scars. Irritated acne and cystic acne can leave pockmarks on the skin and can also leave pigmented spots that look red, deep purple, or brown long after the blemish has healed. The scars can take years to fade away on their own unless you use a product to speed up the process. 

  • Sun Exposure. It goes without saying that sun exposure damages your skin. Using a moisturizing sunscreen (like a CC cream) helps protect your skin against sun damage, but years of exposure (even when you were young) can result in areas of discoloration in adulthood. 

UV light causes melanin production to ramp up, and sunspots appear when melanin collects in one area or is just more highly concentrated in an area. It’s normal to see sunspots on the face, arms, hands, legs, shoulders, and chest. Anywhere the sun touches is a place you can get a sunspot

  • Hormonal changes. Another cause of skin discoloration is hormonal changes. These dark spots occur when hormonal shifts, such as those that come with pregnancy or menstruation, can trigger excess melanin production. Hormonal dark spots can look like small, irregularly shaped dark spots or cover entire portions of your face. 

Retinol can help you tackle all three of these skin-darkening causes.

What Should I Know About Retinol for Dark Spots?

Retinol is my go-to solution for helping my clients fade the appearance of dark spots and correct a visibly uneven skin tone gently and effectively. If you add one product to your skincare routine, this is the one I’d recommend because it helps with discoloration and a myriad of other skin issues. 

Before you get started, here’s what you should know.

1. Not All Retinol Is Created Equally

Retinol is powerfully effective, which means it can cause irritation. Topical retinol is often associated with redness, peeling, and itching. If you’ve ever tried a drugstore retinol product and sworn off the ingredient because the side effects made you miserable, I hear you. 

My Retinol Reform was specifically formulated to work even for sensitive skin types. Made for nighttime use, my formula includes retinol in precise concentrations that slow-release throughout the night, giving your skin great results without any irritation. 

To minimize any redness or dryness you may experience after using retinol, I suggest using a soothing or hydrating ingredient like niacinamide or hyaluronic acid. These two ingredients typically pair very well with retinol because they help minimize its side effects.

2. Retinol Supports Youthful-Looking Skin 

Collagen helps keep skin looking youthful and also works like your body’s own dark spot corrector, helping diminish the appearance of unevenness. Collagen production declines with age, however, and retinol is a key ingredient to keep your complexion looking youthful even when your collagen production isn’t what it used to be. 

3. Antioxidants Are Retinol’s BFF

Oxidative stress caused by free radicals can cause your skin to look older and increase the number of dark spots you see on the surface. Exposure to free radicals can also change the way your skin cells behave. 

Protecting your skin requires antioxidants, which are like a shield that protects your skin against free radical damage from sources like the sun and pollution. 

While using a retinol product, your skin will look more like it did when you were younger since this ingredient can help reveal new, fresh skin. This new skin may be more sensitive to the sun and to environmental pollutants, so using an antioxidant alongside it is a good idea. 

That’s why I formulated my Retinol Reform with apple fruit extract, which contains vitamin C, one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants, and also works as a skin brightener

Because retinol can lead to sun sensitivity, you should always apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 in the mornings after you use retinol. While antioxidants are a great addition to your protective skincare routine, no product can replace a high-SPF sunscreen.

4. Sometimes, Retinol Causes Dryness

Again, it really depends on the product you are using. Retinol Reform was created with a nourishing blend of ingredients like glycerin and aloe to help combat the drying effects of retinol, and the retinol inside is slow-released to help avoid irritation. If you have naturally dry skin, you may still encounter dryness when you first begin using it. 

If that happens, I recommend going slow. Only use Retinol Reform 1-2 nights per week until you build up a tolerance to ensure you don’t experience unnecessary irritation. 

Also, you’ll need a moisturizer to follow up. Every skin type needs a moisturizer, and choosing the right moisturizer is key.

The basic rules for selecting a moisturizer are as follows:

  • For dry skin, use a thicker product like a cream, and look for occlusive ingredients like shea butter or cocoa butter.
  • For oily skin, use a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer or lotion. You can also use a face serum that contains moisture-infusing ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid.
  • For normal skin, I recommend a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer.

Also, it’s important that you use a gentle, non-irritating cleanser while you’re using a retinol product. I only recommend an astringent cleanser for clients who have blemishes and pimples, and not usually while they’re using a retinol product

5. Alternating Lactic Acid With Retinol Can Minimize Dark Spots

Lactic acid is known for brightening the skin, and you’ll find it in Retinol Reform. However, while using Retinol Reform, I recommend alternating nights with my Lactic Acid Serum, which provides gentle exfoliation of the dead skin cells that are finding their way to your epidermis from the retinol

My Lactic Acid Serum helps give your skin an immediate, noticeable glow and also nourishes and soothes the skin between Retinol Reform applications.  

6. Not All Dark Pigment Spots Can Be Removed With Retinol

I like to be upfront with expectations. While retinol is a highly effective skincare product for helping fade the appearance of dark spots, some spots can’t be removed with retinol alone. If you have a birthmark or a particularly stubborn spot that won’t go away, you may need a different solution. 

I always recommend my clients check with a board-certified dermatologist first to make sure the spot in question isn’t cancerous. Then, I recommend a series of in-office treatments that only a licensed esthetician can administer. These may include peels, light treatment therapies, or microdermabrasion. 

Say Goodbye to Dark Spots 

A clear, even complexion completely changes your look and keeps your skin looking healthy and youthful. Retinol is my favorite over-the-counter ingredient to help encourage better skin tone, fight the signs of aging, clarify breakouts, and minimize dark spots

To harness the power of retinol without the harsh side effects that can sometimes come along with it, my Retinol Reform is your go-to. Slow-release retinol and a blend of nourishing, protective ingredients give this product the ability to deliver noticeable results without causing extensive redness, dryness, or irritation. 


Retinol: Cream, Serum, What it is, Benefits, How to Use | Cleveland Clinic

How to fade dark spots in darker skin tones | American Academy of Dermatology 

SEER Training: Layers of the Skin | National Cancer Institute