When we were little kids, freckles were considered adorable. After a certain age, they lose their appeal when they show up as “age spots” or “liver spots.” That doesn’t sound cute anymore, does it? These little pigmented areas are not discriminatory—they form on light, medium and dark skin tones alike, although they are more prevalent in lighter-skinned folks. They are most frequently found on areas that get the most sun exposure—the face, backs of the hands and décolleté (i.e. the upper chest area—what would be a “low neckline”).

Before we get into how to get rid of unwanted pigment, let’s discuss how these spots form to understand how we can avoid getting them in the first place. The sun is the biggest culprit when it comes to the formation of pigment on the skin. Cells in our skin called melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin, which is there to protect the skin from sun exposure. UV radiation triggers this chemical conversation. It’s obvious—the best way to avoid getting age spots is to protect your skin with sunscreen and/or protective clothing. Yet, as vigilant as we may be, at times we leave our skin exposed and the spots show up.

A secondary but less common cause of skin pigmentation is hormones. Many people who experience hormone shifts and surges due to pregnancy, birth control pill use, and/or thyroid disease develop skin pigmentation issues. This is frustrating and harder to prevent.

What can be done to lighten or remove age spots without investing in expensive laser peels or painful deep chemical peeling treatments? For many years, the go-to ingredient for topical lightening was hydroquinone. While hydroquinone is used by many dermatologists, there is growing concern over its safety. In fact, the FDA has restricted the use of hydroquinone in over-the-counter products and placed limitations in physician-only formulas. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to keep me from using it!

There are some very good, botanically based, safe ingredients that can be used to lighten those pesky age spots. Here are a few of my favorites, most of which work best when used together in a product formulation.


Derived from a fungus created as a by-product of rice fermentation, kojic acid blocks melanin production in a similar fashion to hydroquinone, inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase (an enzyme that limits the activity of melanin) and reducing pigmentation. It is considered a melanin inhibitor—meaning it blocks natural pigment from being deposited in the skin. It penetrates the upper layers of the skin, and inhibits the production of epidermal melanin as well. Kojic acid is naturally derived and very safe, and can be used on skin that does not have spots yet to maintain a bright, clear complexion.


Azelaic acid is extracted from wheat, rye and barely. It is a dicarboxy acid that inhibits tyrosinase (which, as I said above, controls the melanin production) activity during its use. It has exfoliating and disinfecting properties and works best when used with alpha and beta hydroxy acids such as glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids. Dozens of studies have shown it to be effective in treating melasma (gray-brown patches, usually on the face) and inhibiting melanin production in addition to preventing the formation of acne lesions. This acid is a great multi-tasker and especially helpful for those suffering from pigmentation caused by acne. Warning: If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, check with your doctor before trying any product containing azelaic acid as it can cause a reaction.


Simple yet effective, vitamin C, which comes in many forms (magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl glucosamine, l-ascorbic acid, and ascorbyl palmitate), is a common ingredient found in many botanical skin lighteners that is also a first-class antioxidant. Vitamin C also inhibits melanin production and leaves skin with a brightened appearance.


Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid derived from bitter almonds. It is a unique skin lightener because of its molecule size, which is larger than most acids used in skin care for lightening. Its larger size allows mandelic acid to remain in the upper layers of the skin where the pigment lies. It is well tolerated by most skin types. Mandelic acid is one of the few botanical ingredients shown to be effective in reducing malasma, a pigmentation issue triggered by hormones.

Daily use of these botanical lightening ingredients along with sunscreen/sunblock can help you lighten those pesky age spots and brighten your skin tone. If you want to really amp up your results, combine these topical products with professional microdermabrasion treatments done bi-weekly by your trusted aesthetician. You will see dramatic results—even on the most stubborn sun damage and liver spots!

I can’t stress enough that a critical final step in reducing unwanted pigment and sun spots is to protect the skin from further damage. Please, protect your skin every day! Safe and effective coverage can be achieved with the use of daily SPF 30 (at a minimum) mineral sunscreen and mineral makeup. SPF is essential when applying any type of AHAs or retinols to the skin and going out into the sunlight, so don’t skip this very important last step in your routine. I talk more about safe sunscreens in this video.

Click here to read Ginger Hodulik Downey’s book The Esthetician’s Guide to Outstanding Esthetics.

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