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Every Cheap Product I Actually Use To Lighten My Dark Marks


Batman has the Joker, Mariah Carey has J. Lo, Olivia Jade has the Common App, and I have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. In terms of arch nemeses, it’s not the worst—but it sure is annoying. “You need me or you’re boring,” insists Moriarty to Sherlock my PIH to me, to which I retort: Shut up PIH! Into The Gloss Dot Com is not currently in the market for freelancing skin conditions with strong opinions! But in my heart of hearts, I know it has a point—without my never-ending battle against PIH, I wouldn’t be able to share with you the cheap, effective things I’ve actually used to lighten it. Cheap because, though I wasn’t always a beauty editor who got expensive stuff for free, I’ve always had PIH. And effective because if not, what’s the point? Until I reach a permanent state of zit-free skin-actualization (which, in truth, I think is just as likely as Nicki and Cardi sitting down over matcha lattes and calling a truce), I’ll keep getting rid of my PIH, and it’ll come back, and I’ll get rid of it again.

I’ve learned that the only products worth my time are those that strike the perfect balance between strong enough to be quickly effective and gentle enough to maintain the integrity of my skin’s natural protective barrier. Irritation will actually make PIH worse. So, to that end, here’s what I use:

An All-Year-Round Niacinamide + Zinc

Niacinamide is a B vitamin that not only helps lighten hyperpigmentation, but also prevents it from forming in the first place. And these two serums stand out because they combine vitamin B with anti-inflammatory, redness-reducing zinc. Inflammatory puts the “I” in PIH, and a daily serum that’s preventative and soothing is a win in my book. I love what The Ordinary’s version does to my skin, but it loses on formula—it foams up when you rub it in and tends to pill under anything oil-based. I find Super Pure slightly less intense, but the experience of using it is significantly better. Both are good options.

Potent Vitamin C

You’ve heard that vitamin C can lighten dark marks and leave you with a brightened complexion overall. But you’ve also heard glowing (pun intended) reviews of loads of vitamin Cs, and have no idea which ones are actually worth it. The main issue is that when exposed to light and air, many liquid forms of vitamin C begin to rapidly degrade. And the ones not sensitive to light and air are often less effective than tried-and-true L-ascorbic or come with a high price tag. Ergo, a powder—mix it with a rich moisturizer for a fresh batch of vitamin C every. single. morning. The Ordinary’s powder is the only one on the market that’s pure, unadulterated L-ascorbic acid. That means it’s stronger than the powders with filler—don’t overestimate the little scooping spoon it comes with. Start out slow and get back to me.


Otherwise known as arbutin, the plant-derived brightener that’s not hydroquinone until it’s broken down by your skin. That means it goes on gentle, has no smell, and yet the effect is virtually identical to what you'd get from over-the-counter HQ. And unlike hydroquinone, which is often recommended to be used in three-month periods, you can use this morning and/or night, indefinitely!!! In a couple of days, any dark mark left by a zit is gone. I’ve tried a few arbutin formulations, and this one from The Inkey List just works the best and is the easiest to use. I would be so sad if this product was ever discontinued, and would probably hoard it in large quantities under my bed.

Prescription Tretinoin

This doctor-prescribed retinol, available with my insurance for Free.99, isn’t a quick fix. It’s a commitment: because it takes a while to see results, sure, though what I really want to talk about is the fact that you need to work up to it slowly. My prescription, .025-percent, is so low that I was at first worried the prescribing derm made a typo when calling it into the pharmacy. But no—that’s on purpose. Retin-A notoriously leads to dry, flaky skin, and if you were paying attention to the beginning of this article, you’d remember that’s enemy number one to lightening pigmentation. So, we start low, and only use it a few times a week. After one tube is finished (which takes a bunch of months, let me tell you), you might keep the same percentage for one more tube, or move up to something slightly stronger. I’m still on the .025. Quick fix it is not, but long-term solution to an uneven skin tone? Why, it’s the gold standard.

When I’m dealing with a particularly persistent patch of PIH, I cushion my treatment plan with moisturizers, and I don’t use all the above at once. Sunscreen is also imperative with any brightening or skin-sensitizing topicals—I usually reach for this zinc-based one that is not cheap, but feel free to swap in whichever SPF you’ll actually use.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG.