As if having acne isn’t torture enough (and a blow to our self esteem), we’re then left with pesky marks on our skin known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (or PIH for short). Can you get rid of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation – and if so -HOW?
I’m here to tell you that YES, you can get rid of them (and I’m not talking about covering them up with concealer). I’ve done the research for you and am going to let you know how to get rid of your post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation successfully (and without doing more damage to your skin). I’m even going to include some awesome product recommendations as always.
What Is Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)?
So why do pimples leave us with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), and what is it exactly?
The simplest way I can describe it is to think of acne as a wound on the skin – which triggers an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response includes the production of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color). Your skin produces melanin when it is damaged or has experienced trauma as a way of protecting itself from the sun (as melanin absorbs most of the UV radiation that hits your skin).
The accumulation of melanin in the specific area where the skin was damaged by acne forms a noticeable dark (brown or black) mark or spot – a not so pleasant reminder of the breakout we just went through.
The darker your skin tone, the more susceptible your skin is to PIH (due to overactive melanin-producing cells called melanocytes).
Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) Vs. Post Inflammatory Erythema (PIE)
Acne can actually leave two types of marks: post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) AND post-inflammatory erythema (PIE).
Although both are a result of the inflammation left by acne (or other trauma to the skin), it’s really important to make a distinction between the two as they require very different treatment.
As I’ve already mentioned – PIH is the melanin response to inflammation that looks like brown or black mark in the place where the acne was. PIE on the other hand, is a vascular response to inflammation caused by trauma to the skin (such as picking and popping pimples) and looks like red or purplish marks.
The reason PIE appears red is because damage or dilation to capillaries (small blood vessels) just under the surface of the skin creates a surge of blood in the area as a healing mechanism.
Conversely to PIH, post-inflammatory erythema is more noticeable on lighter skin tones, and the lighter the skin tone – the longer the PIE will remain.
You can actually have a mix of both PIH and PIE, and PIE can also turn into PIH if left untreated. In this post, I will only be discussing how to treat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (brown spots), which focuses on inhibiting melanin production and increasing the turnover rate of skin cells. These treatments unfortunately have no effect on PIE (red marks) as they are not caused by the accumulation of melanin.
Although PIE does eventually fade after time, there are currently only two research-backed methods that work well at treating it : vascular lasers (which breakdown and disperse broken blood vessels) and silicone sheets (which work to strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier) – so it’s best to see a dermatologist if you suspect you have PIE and would like to speed up the process of fading it.
Is Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) Permanent?
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation usually isn’t permanent, however on its own it takes about 6-12 months to fade. Also, the darker the PIH, the longer it will take to go away.
I have good news though! There are a few simple steps you can take to speed up this process and I’ll be discussing these next as well as giving you some product recommendations.
How To Get Rid Of Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation + Recommended Products
Since PIH is caused by an accumulation of melanin – the idea behind treating it revolves around:
1.) Inhibiting tyrosinase (the enzyme located inside melanocytes that catalyzes the production of melanin). There are a few awesome ingredients that limit melanin production by telling the enzyme tyrosinase to slow right down. If tyrosinase isn’t doing its job – no melanin gets produced – and your skin therefore has less hyperpigmentation.
2.) Increasing the turnover rate of skin cells (so that the acne marks fade faster). This just means that you’re increasing the speed at which your skin cells renew (you’re shedding off old skin cells at a faster rate to reveal new skin cells without hyperpigmentation).
3.) Wearing sunscreen every single day (to prevent any further production of melanin). If you could only choose one of these three steps, I’d say this one is the most important. In fact, the previous two steps would be useless without the use of sunscreen – simply because UV radiation leads to the production of melanin in skin cells, especially if the area of skin has been damaged by acne.
Okay, are you ready? Here’s a list of ingredients and products that are known to work well at either inhibiting tyrosinase or increasing cell turnover rate. I’ve tried to recommend Korean skincare products first wherever I can. However, not every ingredient in my list below has Korean products I would recommend, and therefore in those cases, I’ve recommended excellent Western skincare products instead. Remember, it’s okay to have a mix of Korean and Western skincare products in your routine!
AHAs (Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid)
If you’ve been into Korean skincare for a while, you’ll have noticed that Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a staple ingredient in many people’s skincare routine.
This ingredient is a type of chemical exfoliant that speeds up the rate of skin turnover by breaking up the substance that holds dead skin cells together. The words ‘chemical’ and ‘acid’ may conjure some fears towards using AHAs in your skincare routine, however you shouldn’t worry as they are very gentle unless you use them too often.
The most common type of AHA used in skincare products is glycolic acid, followed by lactic acid.
Mandelic acid is less commonly used as it is a gentler acid and therefore it takes much longer to see results. However, I have read some very positive reviews from people using mandelic acid long-term to fade their post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
It’s important to note that AHAs tend to be more suitable for dry skin types. Oily skin types would benefit more from using a BHA (included in this list). Also, AHAs can temporarily thin the top layer of your skin, so you’ll need to be extra thorough with your daily application of sunscreen. I apply this sunscreen every morning, even if it’s overcast outside or if I’ll be inside most of the day.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Glycolic Or Lactic Acid?
- COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid (Korean brand): This is a 7% glycolic acid toner formulated with a pH of 4 and a very minimal ingredient list. It also contains niacinamide, which is another ingredient perfect for fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Available at Yesstyle and Amazon.
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant (Western brand): As the name suggests, this gel exfoliant contains 8% glycolic acid. The addition of chamomile extract, aloe vera, green tea extract, sodium hyaluronate (a sodium salt of hyaluronic acid) and panthenol make this AHA product a very soothing and hydrating option. Available at Paula’s Choice and Amazon.
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum (Western Brand): I really do wish I had enough money to buy all the Drunk Elephant serums ever made! This beautifully-formulated serum contains both glycolic acid and lactic acid, salicylic acid (BHA), as well as a bunch of soothing and antioxidant ingredients. Available at Amazon.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Mandelic Acid?
- By Wishtrend Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water (Korean Brand): If you’re skin is too sensitive for a glycolid acid-based product, then you should try this toner. It contains 5% mandelic acid instead of glycolic acid, making it much gentler on the skin (although it does take longer to see results). Other beneficial ingredients in this toner include beta-glucan, panthenol, Centella asiatica and sodium hyaluronate – making it hydrating at the same time. Available at Yesstyle.
- Makeup Artist’s Choice 10% Mandelic Acid Serum (Western Brand): I only found out about this brand today while I was researching what the best mandelic acid products are and I’m impressed by what I’ve read and would love to give this serum a try. This simple and hydrating formula contains 10% mandelic acid, as well as witch hazel, and lactic acid. Available at Amazon.
NOTE: Mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds. You should therefore consult your doctor before using any skincare products containing mandelic acid if you have nut allergies.
Arbutin is a glucosylated hydroquinone, derived from the leaves of fruits such as bearberry (although it can also be made synthetically). It’s considered a safer and gentler alternative to pure hydroquinone.
The way arbutin works to fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is by blocking tyrosinase activity by slowly breaking down into hydroquinone.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Arbutin?
- Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence (Korean brand): This potent serum is a must for anyone with sensitive or acne-prone skin. It contains a massive 90% snail mucin and bee venom which give it intense moisturizing, plus anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial benefits. This essence also contains aloe vera, willow bark extract (natural BHA), elm extract, beta-glucan, panthenol – and of course, arbutin. If you like a simpler skincare routine and are looking for an essence that provides many skincare benefits in one, then I’d say this is it! Available at Yesstyle and Amazon.
- Hada Labo ShiroJyun Arbutin Medicinal Whitening Lotion (Japanese brand): I love the brand Hada Labo. Their products are so affordable and their hyaluronic acid lotion is one of the main products I attribute to my acne having improved since I started my Asian skincare journey. The ShiroJyun Arbutin Lotion is a skin-brightening powerhouse as it not only contains arbutin, but also niacinamide, vitamin C derivatives (magnesium ascorbyl phosphate) and vitamin E! Available at Yesstyle.
- SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus Serum (Western brand): A beautiful deep green-colored serum that is very effective at fading sun spots and other types of hyperpigmentation (including PIH) and provides many anti-aging benefits too. It not only contains arbutin, but vitamin C (grapefruit extract), kojic acid, sodium hyaluronate and other herbal extracts too. Available at Dermstore.
- Derma-E Even Tone Brightening Serum (Western brand): I’ve recommended this vitamin C serum before! It contains alpha-arbutin, as well as so many other skin-brightening ingredients such as vitamin C (ascorbyl palmitate), licorice root extract, niacinamide, and willow bark extract. I have read many reviews from people saying they have seen improvements in their acne marks after using this serum (although you need to be patient as it does take a little bit of time). Available at Dermstore and Amazon.
I feel like azelaic acid hasn’t got the credit it deserves, because there is so much research to back up it’s effectiveness at treating so many skin conditions.
Not only is it good at helping to get rid of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, but it’s actually great for treating mild to moderate acne, as well as reducing skin sensitivity due to it’s anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (see studies here, here, and here).
Azelaic acid is available in prescription topical products (usually at concentrations of 15-20%) or in cosmetic skincare products. The concentration of azelaic acid in cosmetic skincare products is usually lower than in prescription medication (10% or less) as this ingredient is quite difficult to formulate (the texture can be grainy if not formulated correctly). However, the good news is that a 10% concentration can still improve skin hyperpigmentation.
The mechanism by which azelaic acid reduces hyperpigmentation is actually similar to that of hydroquinone. It has several mechanisms by which it prevents and fades post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation:
1.) tyrosinase inhibition, as well as
2.) inhibiting abnormal melanocytes
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Azelaic Acid?
- Paula’s Choice Azelaic Acid Booster (Western brand): This is a lightweight, leave-on cream-gel for acne and hyperpigmentation. It contains 10% azelaic acid (the highest concentration you can currently get without a prescription). It also contains salicylic acid (BHA), licorice root extract, allantoin and bisabobolfor extra skin benefits. Also a great product for anyone looking to get rid of rosacea. Available at Dermstore.
- The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (Western brand): Another great option if you’re looking for a quality skincare product containing azelaic acid. It’s also a leave on cream-gel, but it doesn’t contain any other beneficial ingredients like the Paula’s Choice Azelaic Acid Booster does. However, people still see great results when using this product – and it’s much more affordable! Important Note: This product does contain silicones, however I want to put your mind at ease and let you know that it IS okay to use silicones on your skin. Research has shown that silicones won’t suffocate the skin or prevent other skincare ingredients from penetrating the skin (expect a post on this soon!). Available at Amazon.
BHA (Salicylic Acid)
There are some things that Korean skincare does really well, and BHA is one of them.
Remember that AHAs are a chemical exfoliant that work to break down the top layer that holds dead skin cells together? BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) are similar in that they are also chemical exfoliants, however instead of working at the outermost layer of skin, these acids (typically in the form of salicylic acid derived from willow tree bark) work at a deeper level of the skin.
Salicylic acid penetrates inside the pores and attracts oil (unlike AHAs, which attract water molecules) – thereby unclogging them.
The properties of salicylic acid makes it more suitable for oily and acne-prone skin types. Also, just as with AHAs, you will need to be extra thorough in your daily application of sunscreen as these acids do increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With BHA (Salicylic Acid)?
- COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (Korean brand): This is one of those items in my skincare routine that will most likely stay forever (until COSRX stops making it – in which case I’ll have to stock up!). Although the name implies it’s only for blackheads, it’s also great if you’re looking to get rid of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation left by pimples. Since it’s a chemical exfoliant, it actually also helps to prevent new pimples from forming. Although this gel is formulated with 4% betaine salicylate (since the usage of salicylic acid is restricted in South Korea), research has shown that a concentration of 4% betaine salicylate shows comparable effectiveness to 2% salicylic acid. Available at Yesstyle and Amazon.
- COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner (Korean brand): This toner is one of the first products I introduced into my Korean skincare routine – and I saw huge imrpovements in my skin in just a week. I like this toner because it’s a very gentle exfoliator and I can get away with using it every second day or so. It contains 10% apple fruit water (natural AHA) and 10% willow bark water (natural BHA). It also contains 10% mineral water, which is very nourishing on the skin. I like that this AHA/BHA toner is non-drying and non-irritating (I even mist it all over my face without any problems). Available at Yesstyle and Amazon.
- The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution (Western brand): Don’t be fooled by the teeny tiny size of this bottle of BHA, since it’s more of a spot treatment (compared to the previous two products that are applied all over the face). A little bit goes a long way (one drop spreads over quite a large area of skin). This solution contains 2% salicylic acid, as well as witch hazel – making it great for clearing congestion and blackheads in those trouble areas (for me, it’s my chin and forehead). Available at Amazon.
I definitely prefer Korean BHA products over Western ones since they are a lot gentler. I haven’t tried some of the very popular Western BHA skincare products (such as Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid), as they tend to be very drying and irritate the skin a lot easier (which is not good for your skin’s moisture barrier at all). If you are going to try one of the Western products with 2% salicylic acid, don’t apply it to areas of the skin that are inflamed, irritated or have current breakouts – it will just make it worse.
Fermented Rice Water
Fermented rice water has been a part of ancient Asian medicine and skincare for centuries as it boasts many benefits for the skin (especially anti-aging benefits).
A by-product produced during the fermentation of rice is kojic acid, which in itself is a terrific ingredient for fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (see separate entry for kojic acid in this list).
While you could make ferment your own rice water just like ancient traditions – it might be better to purchase products that have been especially formulated for skincare to ensure you’re getting the most that this ingredient has to offer.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Fermented Rice Water?
- Beauty Of Joseon Radiance Cleansing Balm (Korean brand): A beautifully-formulated soft cleansing balm with skin brightening benefits! This oil cleanser is chock full of traditional Korean herbal ingredients, including fermented rice water. It has a lovely herbal smell and is suitable for all skin types. Available at SokoGlam and Yesstyle.
- I’m From Rice Toner (Korean Brand): A very moisturizing toner that will not only enhance your skin’s moisture barrier, but will also help to brighten your skin, as it contains 77.78% rice water! It also contains niacinamide for extra skin-brightening benefits and 0.1% rice bran (which is high in vitamin E, B and fatty acids). Great for all skin types, including oily skin! Available at Yesstyle.
- Skin Food Rice Wash-Off Face Mask (Korean Brand): A light, milky wash-off face mask to gently exfoliate your skin while brightening at the same time (the perfect combo for hyperpigmentation!). Available at Amazon and Yesstyle.
To date, hydroquinone has been shown to have the most notable effect on hyperpigmentation out of any other ingredient. It works by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase AND increasing the cytotoxicity of melanocytes (it helps to kill off cells that produce melanin).
So why are we all wasting our time and money on all these other ingredients instead of just using hydroquinone?
Well it turns out that there is some research suggesting that hydroquinone may act as a carcinogen (cancer causing chemical). Although it’s yet to be proven if hydroquinone causes cancer in humans, it has been banned in some countries (although not the United States, where it can be sold in concentrations up to 2% in over-the-counter skincare products).
Hydroquinone also tends to be very irritating for sensitive skin types (it’s effectiveness comes at a price). I really would only use products containing hydroquinone as a last resort (if everything else fails). There are so many other great ingredients in this list that are much safer and less irritating to use (albeit it might take a bit more time and patience).
I therefore haven’t recommended any skincare products containing hydroquinone here, as I simply wouldn’t use them myself. I would recommend seeing a dermatologist if you would like to give hydroquinone a try.
Kojic acid is produced by certain species of fungi during the process of rice fermentation. It is able to depigment skin by suppressing the activity of tyrosinase.
Research currently suggests that kojic acid works best when used with other lightening agents such as glycolic acid and hydroquinone.
Although kojic acid is very effective at fading hyperpigmentation, it may be better suited for fading pigmentation such as melasma and sun spots. There hasn’t been any research confirming its effectiveness at fading PIH, although I’ve read personal accounts from people that say that kojic acid did indead help them get rid of their PIH.
A down side of kojic acid is that it is unfortunately very tricky to formulate, as it is an extremely unstable ingredient (it loses its efficacy when exposed to sunlight and air).
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Kojic Acid?
- SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus Serum (Western Brand): The second time I’m recommending this gorgeous green serum, especially formulated for fading hyperpigmentation. Suitable for all skin types and also contains arbutin, vitamin C (in the form of grapefruit extract) and sodium hyaluronate. Available at Dermstore.
- Makeup Artist’s Choice (MUAC) Fade Serum (Western Brand): Another serum especially formulated with many skin lightening and brightening ingredients (kojic acid, arbutin, licorice root extract, lactic acid and niacinamide!). Available direct at MUAC.
Licorice Root Extract
Licorice root has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal ingredient (to treat a wide range of ailments). You may have even heard of licorice root tea, which is used to help relieve an upset stomach or a sore throat.
It turns out that licorice root also has many benefits when used on the skin. It contains many compounds (mainly ones called flavonoids), that have been shown to have inhibitory effects on tyrosinase – thereforemaking great depigmenting ingredients.
Licorice root also has anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant properties, which means it doesn’t produce some of the unwanted side effects that other ingredients such as hydroquinone and kojic acid have. This makes licorice root a fantastic skin brightening ingredient for people with sensitive skin.
Luckily for us, many Korean skincare products containing licorice root are available. You’ll even often find it paired with other skin-brightening ingredients, such as vitamin C.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Licorice Root Extract?
- COSRX Triple C Lightning Liquid (Korean Brand): A high quality vitamin C serum formulated with 20.5% pure ascorbic acid as well as licorice root extract. It also contains a huge 72% black chokeberry (and not much else!), which is a natural ingredient that helps to stabilise the high concentration of vitamin C. Only available at SokoGlam (it’s a special collaboration between COSRX and SokoGlam).
- It’S SKIN – Power 10 Formula LI Effector (Korean Brand): A nice little essence consisting of licorice root extract and not much else (so no ingredients that are likely to break you out or cause skin irritation). It comes in a cute little blue bottle and it’s super-affordable ($11 for 30mL when I last checked). Not only is this a great essence to help fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, it is also very soothing to the skin after you’ve applied actives (such as BHA or vitamin C). Available at Yesstyle.
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum (Western brand): A great anti-aging weapon for your skin. This potent serum contains 15% L-ascorbic acid (plus vitamin E and ferulic acid), pumpkin ferment, pomegranate extract, grape juice, indian gooseberry, sodium hyaluronate, marula oil and of course – licorice root extract. Why not work on the appearance of wrinkles at the same time that you’re getting rid of hyperpigmentation? Available at Amazon.
When it comes to skincare – especially Korean skincare – niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3) is a star ingredient. If you’re already using some Korean skincare products, it may be very likely that at least one of them contains niacinamide.
This is because niacinamide has multiple benefits when used on the skin, including:
- The ability to improve your skin’s moisture barrier – thereby keeping it hydrated for longer (see studies here and here)
- The ability to reduce hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone – making it a great first choice for fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Niacinamide works a bit differently to other skin-lightening ingredients though. Rather than inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase, niacinamide works by inhibiting melanosome transfer from melanocytes to keratinocytes. In simpler terms, niacinamide prevents melanin from reaching the outer layer of your skin (see studies here and here).
- The ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles – by increasing the production of collagen (see studies here and here) and its strong antioxidant properties which allow it to soak up free radicals which cause skin damage and premature aging.
- The ability to soothe the skin and decrease sensitivity, redness and irritation (including rosacea). This is due to it’s moisture barrier-strengthening properties (see study on the effects of niacinamide on rosacea here).
- The ability to reduce acne caused by the bacteria P. Acnes (without any risk of bacterial resistance). See study here.
- Lastly, there is some evidence that niacinamide may be able to help reduce sebum production!
As you can see, this is why so many skincare products contain niacinamide. Since so much of Korean skincare is focused on skin-brightening as well as skin hydration, many products include niacinamide on some level (mostly between 2% and 5%, although there are a few containing 10% niacinamide).
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Niacinamide?
As I mentioned above, the concentration of niacinamide in skincare products really varies. A lot of brands choose not to disclose exactly how much niacinamide is in a given product.
I really could list so many Korean skincare products that contain niacinamide, however I believe that it’s important to look at the overall quality of a product (I strive to teach you this through my blog). For example, I wouldn’t use a product just because it includes niacinamide on the ingredient list, as well as 25 other ingredients.
I’ve therefore provided some excellent product recommendations below, where the concentration of niacinamide is known, and the full ingredient lists are quite minimal. If you’d like to check out more products, the AsianBeauty subreddit has produced a very informative list of products containing niacinamide (and the concentration, if known) here in this spreadsheet.
- Many COSRX products (Korean skincare brand) contain 2% niacinamide, including the AHA7 Whitehead Liquid, BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, Galactomyces Whitening Power Essence, and Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask.
- Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster (Western Brand): You won’t find a skincare product with a higher concentration of niacinamide than this booster. Also contains other skin-lightening ingredients (ascorbyl glucoside and licorice root extract) and a bunch of soothing and skin-conditioning ingredients. Available at Dermstore and Amazon.
- NuFountain CelSignal MAP and B3 Hydrating C15 Serum (Western Brand): A skin-brightening serum containing 15% magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (a vitamin C derivative) which I have recommended previously in my post about vitamin C derivatives. This serum contains 5% niacinamide as well as hyaluronic acid (YES, you CAN use vitamin C and niacinamide together) Available at Amazon.
Retinoids (Retinoic Acid, Retinal, Retinol)
Retinoids (topical vitamin A-based products) are anti-aging holy grails. You may have already heard of tretinoin (a prescription retinoic acid also called Retin-A), which was the first retinoid to be used on the skin. It was actually first used as an acne treatment in the 1970’s, but research later found that it actually also has the ability to fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone (by increasing the turnover rate of skin cells).
If you’re over 30 like me, you might be interested to know that as well as fading hyperpigmentation, retinoic acid also reduces fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen.
Retinoids can cause skin dryness and irritation though, so it’s advised to slowly work up to using retinoid-containing skincare products daily. You also need to be extra mindful about wearing sunscreen every day if you’re using retinoids on your skin, as they increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
I’ve already mentioned tretinoin, which is a prescription topical retinoic acid. There are other prescription retinoids available, such as tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin), however if you’re looking for something a little less irritating, you can opt for skincare products containing retinol or retinal (vitamin A derivatives).
Although retinol and retinal are not as strong as prescription retinoids, they still do wonders for the skin (including fading hyperpigmentation). The reason why they are less potent (and therefore less irritating on the skin) is because they must first be converted into the active form (retinoic acid) via an enzymatic process in your skin.
Although retinol and retinal are less irritating than retinoic acid, Korean skincare has shied away from using these vitamin A derivatives in skincare products. This is because they are still considered a more aggressive ingredient compared to other skin-brightening ingredients such as niacinamide and vitamin C (especially if you have sensitive or dry skin) AND because it takes long term regular use (at least 3-6 months) to see improvements in hyperpigmentation and wrinkles when using these ingredients in your skincare routine.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Retinoids?
As I’ve mentioned above, you need a prescription to get a topical cream containing retinoic acid, as it tends to be very irritating on the skin.
I found that the best alternative to retinoic acid (in skincare products) is retinaldehyde (retinal) as it only requires one conversion step in the skin to retinoic acid and it’s much less irritating on the skin. In other words, retinal is more powerful than retinol and it’s even suitable for sensitive and dry skin types.
Here are the skincare products containing retinal that I love the most (because they are so gentle on the skin):
- Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare Calm Level 2 Vitamin A Serum (Western Brand): A fantastic vitamin A serum with a very nourishing and hydrating formula. Contains 0.04% retinaldehyde (retinal), niacinamide, sea buckthorn, lactic acid, centella asiatica (asiaticoside), panthenol and beta-glucan (plus many more herbal extracts that provide other benefits to the skin). Available at Dermstore.
- Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare Calm Level 3 Vitamin A Serum (Western Brand): Similar formulation as above, however containing a higher concentration of retinaldehyde (0.075%). Available at Dermstore.
Retinol requires two conversions in the skin to turn into retinoic acid, however it’s still a very effective ingredient in terms of fading hyperpigmentation and minimizing wrinkles. Remember, it can be a little more irritating than retinaldehyde (retinal).
There are some lovely skincare products containing retinol that are formulated in such a way as to calm and soothe the skin – therefore buffering the strong effects that retinol may have:
- Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster (Western Brand): A serum containing 1% retinol, which blends very nicely with any moisturizer you are using in your routine to buffer any irritating effects of the retinol. This serum also contains lots of antioxidants, skin-repairing and skin-conditioning ingredients, as well as licorice root extract for extra skin-brightening effects. Available at Dermstore and Amazon.
- The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane (Western Brand): The perfect starting point for retinol if you have extra sensitive skin and need to build a tolerance to retinoids more slowly. Formulated in squalane oil (water-free serum), which acts as a moisturizing buffer to irritation. Available from Amazon.
Vitamin C (either in the form of L-Ascorbic Acid or Vitamin C Derivatives)
Vitamin C (a potent antioxidant) is one of the most effective ingredients when it comes to hyperpigmentation – including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Vitamin C works in several ways to prevent and help fade hyperpigmentation. Not only does vitamin C reduce the activity of tyrosinase (by interacting with copper ions at the tyrosinase active site), but it also fights free radicals to prevent sun damage caused by UV rays AND it boosts collagen production. These benefits of course also make vitamin C a perfect anti-aging ingredient!
There are a few important factors to consider when purchasing a vitamin C serum. First of all, vitamin C comes in many forms (I’ve written a post about them here). The most commonly used form is L-ascorbic acid (which also happens to be the most effective form).
You can also find many products containing vitamin C derivatives, such as sodium ascorbyl phosphate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, however these need to be converted to ascorbic acid in the skin first and therefore they may not be as effective.
Studies have shown that serums formulated with 20% L-ascorbic acid (L-AA) have the biggest brightening effect on the skin. However, formulating serums with such a high concentration of L-ascorbic acid is quite difficult as it is such an unstable ingredient in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. I therefore recommend looking for a vitamin C serum that is packaged in a dark-colored glass dropper bottle.
I also recommend using a vitamin C serum that is formulated with vitamin E and ferulic acid, as these two additional ingredients greatly increase the effectiveness of L-ascorbic acid. You can read more about why vitamin E and ferulic acid are so important in my post about vitamin C serums (which also explains when to use vitamin C serums in your skincare routine).
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Vitamin C (L-Ascorbic Acid)?
I’m only going to be recommending vitamin C serums with L-ascorbic acid here, as I do believe L-AA offers superior results when compared to vitamin C derivatives. However, vitamin C derivatives are awesome too as they have a longer shelf life (are more stable than L-AA) and products containing them are generally not as pricey. I have recommended many awesome products containing vitamin C derivatives here if you are interested.
- Timeless – 20% Vitamin C + E + Ferulic Acid Serum (Western Brand): This is the vitamin C serum that I’ve chosen to use after doing hours of research. It contains 20% L-ascorbic acid, as well as vitamin E and ferulic acid. It’s packaged in a dark dropper bottle and priced quite reasonably (it lasts 3-6 months if stored in the fridge before the L-AA in the product oxidises). Available at Yesstyle and Amazon.
- Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Serum (Western Brand): This is probably the best-reviewed vitamin C serum currently available. It’s a lot pricier than the Timeless vitamin C serum, however everyone that uses it swears it’s worth the money. It contains 15% L-ascorbic acid as well as vitamin E and ferulic acid. SkinCeuticals state that this serum should remain stable for up to 6 months (after opening) if stored correctly. Available at Dermstore and Amazon.
What About Korean Vitamin C Serums?
There are Korean vitamin C serums available on the market, with many of them receiving very good customer reviews. There is one Korean vitamin C serum that stands out from all the rest:
- COSRX Triple C Lightning Liquid (Korean Brand): This Korean vitamin C serum is a special collaboration between SokoGlam and COSRX, and is therefore only available to buy at SokoGlam. It contains 20.5% L-ascorbic acid, and although it doesn’t contain vitamin E or ferulic acid, it is formulated with 72% black chokeberry, a special natural ingredient that stabilizes the high concentration of vitamin C in this product. It also contains licorice root extract and sodium hyaluronate for extra skin brightening and hydration.
Now Don’t Forget the SPF!
I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this post. No, I’m not trying to annoy you, I just want to point out just how important it is to remember your SPF if you want to get rid of your post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Not only will sunscreen prevent any new hyperpigmentation from forming, but some skincare ingredients (especially actives such as AHA and BHA) actually make your skin more sensitive to UV radiation.
Not to mention, it would be pointless to spend your time (and MONEY!) on skincare products to fade your PIH, only to do more damage when you’re out in the sun without sunscreen.
If you’re still looking for the right sunscreen for your skin, I really recommend checking out the range available at SokoGlam (where you can filter the sunscreens available by your skin type).
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation sucks (why do we need a reminder of the horrible experience that acne is?). However, the good news is that PIH isn’t permanent and there are so many skincare products available that can help you to speed up the process of fading your PIH (and other types of hyperpigmentation too).
There are a few other ingredients that you’ll find people mentioning here and there (such as hyaluronic acid, snail mucin, Centella asiatica and bee propolis). Although these are fantastic ingredients that are worthwhile to include in your skincare routine for their moisturizing and anti-inflammatory benefits- there have been no scientific studies that have shown that these ingredients inhibit tyrosinase or increase the cell turnover rate.
I hope you found this post useful. Let me know if any of the ingredients I’ve mentioned here (or others I haven’t mentioned) have worked in fading your post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.