While UV exposure is the chief offender when it comes to blotchy patches and sunspots -- it encourages cells called melanocytes to churn out extra melanin -- it's not the only cause. Hormones related to pregnancy, birth control, and certain menopausal supplements; stress; pollution; and post-inflammatory responses to pimples and other skin injuries can all play a hand in hyperpigmentation. According to cosmetic dermatologist Neal Schultz, even your heritage can put you on the fast track to a more mottled future. He says women of Asian and Latin descent "are often more plagued by increased pigmentation and brown spots."
The single most important step of sunspot prevention is slathering on a broad-spectrum physical blocker containing at least 9 percent zinc and/or titanium dioxide. Elizabeth Tanzi, a dermatologist in Washington, D.C., says, "Broad-spectrum sunscreens guard against UVB rays, which cause burns, as well as UVAs, which make skin more susceptible to hyperpigmentation." Physical blocks also don't degrade as quickly as chemical screens like avobenzone -- but that doesn't mean you don't have to reapply every three hours. Another way to help keep pigmented cells from accumulating is to speed up your skin's rate of cellular turnover, which slows down as you age.
Once you've spotted a flock of sunspots, don't despair; there's plenty you can do to help wipe the slate clean. An over-the-counter product formulated with 2 percent hydroquinone lightly lifts pigmented marks and promotes a more uniform skin tone. Vitamin C, kojic acid, and niacinamide have also been shown to boost clarity, but most products take about three months to demonstrate visible results, so stick with it (but be careful that you don't use the product for more than prescribed on the package). For a quicker fix, ask your dermatologist about an in-office glycolic peel or fractional laser resurfacing, which precisely targets areas of damage to dramatically improve translucency.
To soak up sebum along the T-zone -- a.k.a. the forehead, nose, and chin, which are teeming with oil glands and often the most prone to slickness -- keep your skin in check by only using oil-free moisturizers and sunscreens. You can also stop by your dermatologist's office to score a heavy-duty sebum absorber such as OC Eight Professional Mattifying Gel ($41), which fights facial shine for a full eight hours and prevents makeup from slip-sliding away. For a drugstore option, track down an antishine primer containing silica, or powder-free blotting papers, which can be stashed in your purse for to-go touchups.
It's three days before a big event and you feel a substantial breakout starting to bubble up beneath the surface. Rather than RSVP'ing "no," set up an appointment with your doctor to see if a cortisone shot might be the right solution. Meghan O'Brien, a consulting dermatologist for Physician's Formula in New York City, says, "A cortisone injection reduces inflammation and redness, and cuts down on the duration of the lesion."
A complexion-perfecting facemask is a fantastic way to "deliver ingredients for an extended amount of time," says Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist. She adds, "It allows ingredients to penetrate the skin more efficiently." To whisk away dead surface cells, smear on Estee Lauder Idealist Dual-Action Refinishing Treatment ($49.50), which is one part scrub, one part mask. Exfoliating beads buff the skin while salicylic acid sweeps away pore-clogging cells. Follow up with a hyaluronic acid-based moisturizer to lock in hydration.
Don't stop smiling -- reach for a retinoid instead! According to dermatologist Leslie Baumann, director of the University of Miami's Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute, vitamin A derivatives like Retin-A and Renova are "the only ingredients proven to get rid of wrinkles you already have." If you don't have time to talk to your doc about picking up a prescription, head to the drugstore for an over-the-counter retinol, which is a lower-strength option. Start with a 0.5 percent concentration to prevent irritation and gradually work up to 1 percent retinol.
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