It's important to know what's causing your uneven skin tone before you treat it with a cream because the wrong treatment can make the problem worse, says New York City dermatologist Dennis Gross in "Elle" magazine. According to Gross, there are three main causes of skin discoloration. First -- and most common -- is sun damage, which usually shows up as age spots or uneven patches. Pigmentation in the form of uneven dark patches can also be caused by hormonal changes, especially during pregnancy. And sometimes injuries -- like a popped pimple or flat iron burn -- can leave a permanent mark on your skin.
Creams for skin pigmentation can work in two different ways. Some creams target tyrosinase, an enzyme that plays a key role in melanin production, to make dark spots and patches of skin fade to more closely match the rest of your skin tone. Other creams work by preventing melanin from spreading to surrounding skin cells, which helps minimize the appearance of uneven skin tone.
Results from creams designed to even skin tone can take a while to show up. It can take anywhere from eight to 16 weeks to see improvement with over-the-counter creams, says Leslie Baumann, director of the Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute at the University of Miami, in "The New York Times." Skipping applications or not using the cream as directed can increase the wait time for results.
When you're shopping for creams for skin pigmentation, there are a few key ingredients to look for. Hydroquinone is one of the most effective ingredients, says Rebat Halder, professor and chairman of the department of dermatology at Howard University, in "Good Housekeeping" magazine. Licorice extract, vitamin C, kojic acid, mulberry and soy produce less dramatic results but can also help fade pigmentation problem areas.
Check with your dermatologist and follow directions carefully if you plan to use hydroquinone. Though hydroquinone is effective for treating uneven pigmentation and recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology, very high doses of hydroquinone may increase your risk for certain types of cancer and long-term use of hydroquinone can cause bruise-like tissue discoloration, explains Kansas City, Missouri dermatologist Audrey Kunin in "Elle" magazine.
In addition to creams designed to even out skin tone, it's essential to wear sunscreen every day if you have skin pigmentation issues, says Scottsdale, Ariz.-based dermatologist Jennifer Linder, in "Elle" magazine. Linder says exposure to UV rays from the sun can make existing pigmentation issues more noticeable, cause new pigmentation problems and cause melasma to flare up.