Treating light spots in brown or black skin

Treating light spots in brown or black skin

While anyone can develop light spots on their skin, these spots tend to be more noticeable if you have brown or black skin. Areas of lighter (or darker) skin develop for many reasons. Here’s why you may see one or more lighter areas, and what you can do about it.

What causes light spots and patches on brown or black skin?

One reason people see a lighter area is that the skin is making less pigment. The medical term for this change is hypopigmentation, which translates to “less pigment.” Your skin’s ability to make pigment may slow down when you:

  • Injure your skin

  • Apply certain medications to your skin

  • Have a cosmetic procedure (i.e., laser treatments, injectable wrinkle filler)

A light spot or patch can also be a sign that you have a skin condition. If you see lightly colored areas on your skin, you might have one of the following conditions:

Some people who develop light spots and patches have vitiligo. This condition develops when your body starts destroying some of the cells that give your skin its color. In areas where the skin cells have been destroyed, you see loss of skin color.

People of all skin colors can develop vitiligo. When you have a darker skin tone, the contrast between your natural skin color and the lighter area(s) makes vitiligo stand out.

The light areas on this man’s face are due to a condition called vitiligo.

Treatment may help restore lost skin color.

Vitiligo on man’s face

How to get rid of light spots and patches

To give you expert advice, we turned to Nada Elbuluk, MD, MSc, FAAD, who is a board-certified dermatologist and Director and Founder of the Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Clinic at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Dr. Elbuluk recommends these three self-care tips for anyone who notices light spots:

  1. Pay close attention to your skin for a few weeks. Here’s what to look for:

    • Darkening of the light area(s)
    • New light area(s) -- or more lightening of existing light areas -- on your skin
    • No change

    “A light spot can appear where you recently had a rash, bug bite, or wound,” says Dr. Elbuluk. She adds, “When this happens, your body will work to make more pigment. How quickly you see more pigment and a return of your natural skin color can depend on several factors, including how long you had the rash, bug bite, or wound.”

    “If your skin heals from the rash or other concern in a few weeks, the light spot tends to improve more quickly,” says Dr. Elbuluk. You’ll likely notice some darkening in a few weeks.

    “When the rash (or other condition) lingers for a year or longer, the light spot can take longer to heal. Sometimes, you may not get to 100% recovery,” she says.

    When to see a dermatologist: If you see new (or worsening) light spots or no change after a few weeks, it’s time to see a board-certified dermatologist. By seeing a dermatologist, you can find out what’s causing the light areas on your skin.

    Sometimes, the light areas are actually a skin condition that can benefit from treatment. “If the light spots are caused by a condition, you want to treat it proactively. With this approach, there’s less risk of more light spots developing,” says Dr. Elbuluk.

  2. Protect the light areas from the sun. Often, your body will start making pigment to heal a light area. “If your body is making pigment, sunlight can cause your body to overdo it,” says Dr. Elbuluk. When your body overdoes it on making pigment, those light spots become dark spots.

    To protect your skin from sunlight, dermatologists recommend following these tips when you’re outdoors. Cover the light-colored skin with clothing like long sleeves and pants. You also want to stay in the shade.

    If you cannot cover up with clothing, apply sunscreen before going outdoors. To get the protection you need, use sunscreen that offers all of the following:

    • Broad-spectrum protection
    • SPF 30 or higher
    • Water resistance

    When spending time outdoors, be sure to reapply the sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

  3. Skip treating the light spots on your own. While treatment may help, there is no one treatment for light spots. For treatment to be effective, you must know what’s causing the skin lightening.

    It’s also possible that you don’t need treatment. Sometimes, the best approach is to let your natural skin color return on its own.

    “A dermatologist can tell you what’s best for you,” says Dr. Elbuluk. She adds that you want to be proactive about seeking care. If a disease like eczema is causing the lightening, treating the eczema can help decrease new light spots.

What to expect when you see a dermatologist for light spots

Your dermatologist’s first priority is to find the cause. To give you an accurate diagnosis, your dermatologist will look closely at the light area(s) and ask questions.

Before your first dermatology appointment, make sure you know the names of your medications.

Some medications can lighten your skin, so your dermatologist will ask you about medications you take or apply to your skin. Be sure to tell your dermatologist about treatment that you buy without a prescription like acne gels and ointments.

Woman sitting on couch at home, using laptop

Once your dermatologist knows why you have a light area(s), your dermatologist will tell you what’s recommended. Often, your natural skin color will return on its own. If you have a skin condition, your dermatologist can create a treatment plan for you.

You can locate a dermatologist in your area by going to Find a dermatologist.

To see if there is a dermatologist in your area who focuses on people who have skin of color:

  1. Click on Any Practice Focus.

  2. Select Skin of color.


Images
Image 1: Used with permission of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (J Am Acad Dermatol 2001;44:999-1001.)

Image 2: Getty Images

References
Madu PN, Syder N, et al. “Postinflammatory hypopigmentation: a comprehensive review of treatments.” J Dermatolog Treat. 2020 Jul 20:1-5.

Rodney IJ, Park J, et al. “Disorders of hypopigmentation.” In: Taylor and Kelly’s Dermatology for Skin of Color. (2nd edition). McGraw Hill, USA, 2016:333-50.

Saleem MD, Oussedik E, et al. “Acquired disorders with hypopigmentation: A clinical approach to diagnosis and treatment.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80(5):1233-50.


Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Crystal Aguh, MD, FAAD
Erin Ducharme, MD, FAAD
Nada Elbuluk, MD, MSc, FAAD
Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, FAAD
Benjamin Stoff, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 8/18/21


All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology

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