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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • How Long Does it Really Take Retinol to Work on Dark Spots?
Woman with hyperpigmentation using retinol to fade her dark spots

How Long Does it Really Take Retinol to Work on Dark Spots?

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Main image – Guillefaingold/Stocksy

Aah retinol, one of the superhero ingredients that gets huge amounts of media exposure – and for good reason!

Added to creams, gels, lotions, ointments and serums, retinol is *amazing* for unclogging pores, tackling acne and scarring, and promoting healthier skin in general.

And one of its best qualities for anyone who suffers from hyperpigmentation may be its ability to tackle dark spots.

But exactly how effective is retinol for tackling hyperpigmentation and how long will it take to work?

We asked dermatologists Dr Geeta Yadav, Dr Jody A. Levine, MD, and Dr Tiina Meder exactly how well it works and when you can expect to see results on your dark spots. 

And if you’re completely new to retinoids, we’ll also go into exactly what this ingredient is and how to use it.


Retinol product which can be used on dark spots

Image – Adobe


Can retinol remove dark spots?

First up though, while retinol is *perfect* for fine lines and enlarged pores, how effective is it for removing dark spots?

The experts explain that retinol has the effect of lightening skin over time, which can help with fading dark spots but may not be enough to completely eradicate them.

Dr Meder tells us, “One of the retinol’s effects is skin lightening but retinol is not a lightening agent (paradox!). Retinol based skincare lightens skin visually because it accelerates skin renewal and cell turnover, so accumulated in epidermis cells melanin is eliminated from the skin surface and skin looks brightened.” 

Dr Levine warns though that retinol, “can help fade the appearance of dark spots over time, but it might not completely remove them on its own.”


Woman with hyperpigmentation

Image – Guillefaingold/Stocksy


And if reducing hyperpigmentation is your aim you’ll have to be *really* careful with your sun protection, according to the experts, since retinol use may actually make your dark spots worse if you don’t.

Dr Meder says, “Retinol makes skin more sensitive to the sun so it is extremely important to use maximum level of sun protection (50+AB sunscreens, avoid exposing skin to the sun rays, wear big hats and sunglasses etc) to avoid hyperpigmentation as a side effect of retinol use.”


How long does retinol take to work on dark spots?

For retinol to tackle pesky dark spots, “it takes at least six to twelve weeks to see true results,” says Dr Yadav.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution though, as Dr Levine tells us that “results vary from person to person.”

In fact you may begin to see small results sooner than you think as one study of 68 people found slight improvements in hyperpigmentation using retinol from as early as one week of use.

Meanwhile, the strength of the retinol you’re using may have an impact on how quickly you see results as another 2006 study found “significant improvement” in “mottled hyperpigmentation” after just four weeks of using a high strength retinoid


Retinol which can be used to help dark spots

Image – Adobe


Those stronger products come with a higher risk of side effects though, according to Dr Meder.  She says, “Most intense products recommended by dermatologists could provide faster results but with more side effects,” like, “redness, flakiness, irritation and skin tightness”.

The bottom line? Most people should expect to see results on their dark spots after 3 months of retinol use but your individual skin type, level of hyperpigmentation, and the strength of the product you’re using will have an impact on exactly how long it will take. 

Speaking to a dermatologist about the right product for you is a good way to make sure you’re getting results without too many side effects.

Patience and consistency are key with this one!


How often should you be using retinol for dark spots?

We asked Dr Yadav whether using retinol a few times a week is enough to see any noticeable changes, she tells us that “to really achieve the best results when treating hyperpigmentation, you’ll want to be using your retinol nightly, though you will see some improvement when using it several times a week.”

It’s worth noting, however, that you need to build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol to avoid any adverse reactions. 

Retinoids (the term that covers all types of retinol, from prescription products to designer serums) are a form of vitamin A.  They come in multiple strengths and formulas, from face oils to moisturisers, and can tackle everything from acne to clogged pores and ageing.  

They are known for side effects like redness, flaking and irritation though, which is why how you use them is important.

The Cleveland Clinic backs this up. It advises that “since retinol can irritate your skin, it’s best to start slow.

“After a patch test, you might use a product once every few days, and then gradually ramp up to once or twice per day. At first, you might experience redness, itching or burning, but these symptoms go away as your skin gets used to the treatment.”

It advises to “apply retinol in a thin layer to your entire face (be careful not to get it in your mouth, nose and eyes). You should use a dose that’s about the size of a pea. For the first couple weeks of treatment, apply retinol only every other day.”


Retinol product which can be used to tackle dark spots on skin

Image – Adobe


Can retinol make dark spots worse?

As we’ve already discussed, ironically if you use retinol incorrectly you could actually end up worsening your dark spots.

Dr Yadav tells us that “this is possible if you are using a retinoid that is stronger than your skin can tolerate; hyperpigmentation from retinol use is more common in those with deeper skin.

“Dark spots caused by retinol would be post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is the same type of discolouration caused by blemishes – the trauma to the skin triggers your body inflammatory response, causing discolouration.”

But how can you prevent retinol causing more dark spots?

“The best way to prevent this is by starting slowly and gently with retinol and using it under the observation of a dermatologist,” advises Dr Yadav.

Next, make sure you’re using sunscreen all day, every day, regardless of the weather to protect yourself from further pigmentation.


skincare retinol dark spots ageing wrinkles

Image – Jacob Lund/Adobe


How else can you fade dark spots?

Retinol isn’t the only way to remove dark spots though. Different skincare ingredients and even some cosmetic treatments can all help to fade hyperpigmentation.

Dr Meder tells us that the best skincare ingredients to look out for to fade dark spots include:

  • Alpha arbutin
  • Bearberry
  • Licorice
  • Tranexamic acid
  • Cysteamine
  • GluthATione
  • N-acetyl glucosamine
  • Niacinamide
  • Vitamin C
  • AHAs, especially glycolic acid

She adds that in-office treatments can be really effective too. “My favourite has been chemical peels, despite it takes a lot of before and after care.

“Laser skin lightening is called “gold standard” by many aesthetic doctors and it is indeed a great high-tech treatment. So we have a lot of choices and that’s why it is always better to see a professional – to choose the best for you personally,” she tells us.


can retinol remove dark spots skin skincare

Image – Adobe


The takeaway

You should expect to see results from retinol on your dark spots after around 3 months, but it may not remove them completely and you’ll need to be really careful to use SPF every day.

It’s always best to speak with a dermatologist about issues with your skin, however, if you start with a low concentration OTC retinol and listen to what your skin says, you can increase the dose incrementally over a few weeks until your skin can tolerate it.


Meet the experts

Dr. Geeta Yadav is a world-renowned board-certified dermatologist and the founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto, Canada.  She is regularly featured for her expert advice in the likes of Byrdie, Allure and Vanity Fair.


Dr Jody A. Levine, MD is a one of America’s top dermatologists and the Director of Dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC, a leading medical and aesthetic practice in New York City.


Dr Tiina Meder began her medical career in 1995 as a cardiologist specialising in treating pregnant women with heart conditions. Later on she switched to dermatology, but kept her focus on health and pregnancy-safe methods. In 2009 she launched her own brand, Meder Beauty, from her clinic in Antibes, France. 


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Senior Beauty Editor

Laura Kemp started her journalism career as a news reporter for one of the largest newspaper groups in Europe before moving into features and editorial writing. Combining her love of hard-hitting journalism with her passion for beauty, she’s now Senior Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she’s not writing, researching, or interviewing her favourite experts, you’ll find Laura practicing her downward dog or drifting on her paddleboard.

Expertise: Hair care, nails
Education: University of Salford

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