Today, I'm going to discuss the best skin lightening cream for hyperpigmentation (spoiler: my top pick is Meladerm).
Hyperpigmentation, like dark spots, age spots, melasma, uneven tone, and acne marks, bothers many people as it's both aesthetically undesirable and a visible sign of aging.
There are thousands of skincare products on the market that claim to treat hyperpigmentation, including chemical peels, vitamin C serums, and skin lightening creams.
In this post, I'll cover the last category and present my top product recommendations based on the medical research and customer feedback. Let's get started! ⭐
Here are the best skin lightening creams for hyperpigmentation:
Meladerm is my top pick because it's an effective skincare product based on medical research, natural & plant-based ingredients, and over 20 years of industry experience.
The product was first conceptualized in 1999 by a team of researchers at Civant Skin Care who wanted to create a product line specifically for hyperpigmentation.
After 4 years of research & development (including clinical trials), Meladerm was launched in 2003.
Meladerm has since become an international bestseller and received thousands of reviews from customers who said it helped fade dark spots, reduce melasma, and correct uneven skin tone.
So why is Meladerm so popular? Here are a few reasons:
Now, before I discuss the ingredients, we need to address the "elephant in the room": hydroquinone
While I don't have time to discuss all the nuances of hydroquinone safety here, in a nutshell, it's reasonably safe to use at low concentrations with adequate sun protection. Some dermatologists may advise you to "cycle on, cycle off" for 3 months at a time out of an abundance of caution.
For more information, check out my article on hydroquinone safety below:
Now, as you can imagine, many consumers started switching to non-hydroquinone alternatives as major news outlets featured headlines like "hydroquinone may cause cancer".
(unfortunately, this is misleading as the data is inconclusive).
That's why products like Meladerm quickly became a skincare staple for women who were previously using 2% over-the-counter or 4% prescription-grade hydroquinone creams.
Moreover, Meladerm uses over 10+ skin brightening agents, most of which are plant-derived ????:
Finally, the last thing that I noticed with Meladerm is that the company didn't cut any corners when it comes to packaging design. Meladerm uses an airless dispenser that preserves the freshness and potency of the ingredients (which are sensitive to oxidation from air, light, and heat).
My Verdict: Meladerm is my top pick for a skin lightening cream to treat hyperpigmentation like dark spots, uneven tone, melasma, and post-acne marks. Instead of hydroquinone, Meladerm uses over 10+ skin brightening agents and an airless dispenser to keep them fresh and potent. ????
QRxLabs Whitening Cream is my second pick because it's a more affordable skin lightening cream that doesn't compromise on product quality (it's like a budget version of Meladerm).
You might know QRxLabs already if you've ever bought one of their bestselling chemical peels like the Glycolic Acid 30% Gel Peel or Glycolic Acid 20% Resurfacing Pads. Both are high-quality products that are featured in my full review of the best chemical peels for hyperpigmentation below:
QRxLabs Whitening Cream is designed to fade hyperpigmentation by inhibiting melanin synthesis through a combination of proven skin lightening agents:
(all of these ingredients are found in Meladerm as well)
I like that the ingredient list is super simple (13 in total) and uses organic coconut oil as the base.
Finally, customer reviews have been moderately positive with some who noticed fewer dark spots and more even tone while others did not see any results or complained about the product size.
It's important to note that treating hyperpigmentation requires a ton of patience as your skin cells only turnover about once every 30 days (source: Epidermis and Its Renewal by Stem Cells).
My Verdict: QRxLabs Whitening Cream is my second pick as it's a cheaper version of Meladerm that includes some (not all) of the same ingredients and does not compromise on product quality.
Glycolic acid is a powerful alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps remove your dead skin cells and promote faster cell turnover, allowing your skin to reveal its natural brightness and smoothness! (source: A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels, 2018)
The Caudalie Brightening Glycolic Night Cream features Glycolic Acid and Papaya Extract for gentle exfoliation and cell renewal, while Viniferine (a.k.a. ε-viniferin or grapevine sap extract) helps brighten your dark spots and correct uneven skin tone (source: Caudalie and Google Patents).
Viniferine (ε-viniferin) is a promising skincare ingredient discovered by Professor Joseph Vercauteren at the University of Montpellier in France. His extensive research into grape extracts and collaboration with Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas led to the creation of Caudalie in 1993. ????
Caudalie claims that ε-viniferin is 62 times more effective than traditional vitamin C for clearing up dark spots and for skin brightening purposes (source: Caudalie).
However, this claim requires further context and clarification.
A 2014 study led by Professor Vercauteren did indeed find that trans-ε-viniferin was 62x more effective than Vitamin C (L-Ascorbic Acid) at inhibiting melanin synthesis in mushroom tyrosinase (source: A Huge PVDF Adsorption Difference Between Resveratrol and ε-Viniferin Allows to Quantitatively Purify Them and to Assess Their Anti-Tyrosinase Property, 2014).
But this doesn't mean that ε-viniferin is better or worse than conventional brightening ingredients because we simply don't know how well it performs in real life (i.e. randomized clinical trials).
Nonetheless, it's a very promising skincare ingredient that, judging by the positive reception of Caudalie products (many of which include Viniferine), is most likely an effective one, too!
The Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Night Cream can help you:
In terms of clinical results, Caudalie cites the following from a 56-day study with 21 volunteers:
My Verdict: The Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Night Cream is an excellent addition to a family of grape-inspired products, featuring Glycolic Acid, Viniferine, and Papaya Extract, that helps diminish your dark spots, correct uneven skin tone, and promote a healthier glow.
Vitamin C is one of the best skin brighteners and also provides substantial benefits for your skin, including antioxidant protection from free radical damage and increased collagen production (source: The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health, 2017).
If you're looking for a good vitamin C cream, the Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rich Hydration Cream is one of the most popular ones right now with 5% THD Ascorbate (a stable oil-based vitamin C derivative).
This level of vitamin C can help correct uneven tone and improve your skin's overall radiance.
The key ingredients include:
One drawback of this product is there's many types of alcohol present, including Alcohol Denat., which is known to be drying and potentially damaging to your skin (source: Paula's Choice).
The overall formulation is also a bit too complicated for my liking with a total of 48 ingredients. (compare that with only 13 ingredients in QRxLabs Whitening Cream).
The Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rich Hydration Cream is perfect for those with dry to normal skin as it provides a ton of hydration for more supple and nourished-looking skin. People with more oily skin, however, said the product felt too greasy and sat on the skin surface rather than being absorbed.
My Verdict: The Sunday Riley C.E.O. is an excellent vitamin C cream to help brighten dark spots and correct uneven tone with 5% THD Ascorbate and a nourishing formula of flower/fruit waxes.
But did you know that Drunk Elephant also has a lesser-known A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream?
The "A" stands for Vitamin A (Retinol) and "Passioni" refers to another ingredient, Passionfruit Oil.
Retinol is a part of the Retinoid family which has been used since the 1940s for many skin conditions, including acne (such as Accutane), wrinkles and fine lines, uneven skin tone, and sun damage (source: Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, 2016).
The A-Passioni Retinol Cream, in particular, combines the exfoliating benefits of Vitamin A (Retinol) with the hydrating properties of Vitamin F (Linoleic Acid) and a nourishing complex of Passionfruit, Apricot, Jojoba, and Marula Seed Oils, to reduce redness and irritation associated with retinol use.
In addition, Drunk Elephant included a peptide trio (Palmitoyl Tripeptide-1, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, and Palmitoyl Hexapeptide-12) to boost the formula's anti-aging and skin-firming benefits.
Like all Drunk Elephant products, the A-Passioni is free of essential oils, silicones, and fragrances.
Finally, customer reviews have been extremely positive, with some seeing smoother and clearer skin after a few weeks with reduced dark spots and post-acne marks. Others, however, found that the product was too strong for them and caused skin irritation.
My Verdict: Drunk Elephant is a massively successful clean beauty brand that's taken a new twist on Vitamin A with its A-Passioni Retinol Cream loaded with skin boosting extracts and healthy oils.
For decades, hydroquinone has been the "gold standard" for treating hyperpigmentation and it remains a popular option at both over-the-counter levels (2.0%) and prescription levels (4.0%).
Hydroquinone is effective at resolving hyperpigmentary skin conditions like melasma, age spots, uneven tone, and sun damage, and has an excellent safety record across multiple decades (sources: Hyperpigmentation Therapy: A Review, 2014 and The Safety of Hydroquinone, 2006).
As I discussed previously (under Meladerm), there's been some controversy over hydroquinone after the FDA published a proposed rule to ban over-the-counter hydroquinone products in 2006 (source: The Federal Register, 2006).
However, some dermatologists responded to the FDA with counterarguments on hydroquinone:
Long story short, hydroquinone is extremely effective and has been used safely for decades. ????
But it's important to choose the right hydroquinone product (if you're buying over-the-counter) and use it in accordance with medical guidelines or under a dermatologist's supervision.
My top recommendation here is the Murad Rapid Age Spot & Pigment Lightening Serum.
This is a 2% hydroquinone product created by dermatologist Dr. Howard Murad that does not require a doctor's prescription (or an expensive appointment).
It also includes Glycolic Acid to help hydroquinone penetrate your skin better and Hexapeptide-2 to improve uneven skin tone and assist in reducing excess pigmentation (source: Murad).
There's also Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Amino Acids, and Aloe Vera in the formula. On the other hand, I don't like that there's Alcohol Denatured (drying and potentially irritating) and Fragrance included.
However, more critical reviews said this product did not improve their skin or caused a reaction.
My Verdict: Hydroquinone is a powerful treatment for hyperpigmentation (especially for melasma) and should not be feared, but respected, for its ability to fade dark spots and correct uneven tone. My top recommendation is Murad Rapid Age Spot & Pigment Lightening Serum which uses 2% Hydroquinone along with Glycolic Acid and Hexapeptide-2 to help brighten your complexion.
If you're looking for a hydroquinone cream (or a more affordable hydroquinone product), I highly recommend taking a look at Paula's Choice Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser (only $29 for 1.0 oz).
This skin brightening lotion features the maximum level of over-the-counter 2% Hydroquinone along with 7% Glycolic Acid and antioxidants including Rosehip Oil and Vitamin E.
These ingredients work very much synergistically to remove dead skin cells, promote cell turnover, normalize melanin production (to keep dark spots at bay), and improve skin radiance & evenness.
As we've discussed in this article, hydroquinone is perfectly safe for your skin, given decades of prescribed usage under dermatologist supervision without any reports of malignancy (cancer).
Since this product contains high levels of both hydroquinone and glycolic acid, make sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen as your skin will become more sensitive to sun exposure. ☀️
Finally, customer reviews have been very good, with reports of diminished age spots and brown spots, and cleared up dark spots and post-acne marks. Others said it helped with melasma, discoloration, and improved general signs of aging like dull, blotchy, and uneven skin tone.
My Verdict: Paula's Choice is a high-quality brand with a more affordable hydroquinone cream that combines 2% Hydroquinone, 7% Glycolic Acid, and Antioxidants to fade your dark spots!
The new Clinique Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter is actually an update of the Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter (dual chamber design), which was itself an upgrade of the OG Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector (single chamber design).
Feeling confused yet?
Don't worry, here's what you need to know about this popular dark spot corrector.
First off, this product actually contains two different serums:
(these were previously housed in separate containers, but now they're combined into one)
The CL-302 Complex is just a fancy marketing term used to describe the following ingredients:
As you can see, CL-302 Complex contains a powerful combination of skin brightening agents that (surprisingly) hasn't changed much since the release of the original Clinique Dark Spot Corrector.
The Interrupter Complex contains a prevention formula that helps "interrupt" dark spots, kind of like how Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift in 2009... just a lot less cringy. It contains:
Finally, customer reviews have been very promising (although more limited in number). Some said it helped brighten dark spots, sun spots, and acne scars, and improved their skin tone, while others were disappointed that it didn't work and only made their skin feel softer.
My Verdict: Clinique Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter helps smooth out uneven skin tone, reduce dark spots and age spots, and prevent future signs of hyperpigmentation. It's a little pricey but comes packed with a proprietary blend of plant-based skin lightening agents.
Pro Tip: for fans of the original formula, you can still buy it today on Clinique's official website.
Did you know that hyperpigmentation isn't the only form of skin discoloration?
That's right! There's actually another skin condition called post-inflammatory erythema (redness).
This is particularly common in fairer-skinned individuals and includes skin redness, red spots, and the "tomato" face syndrome (okay, I made that one up, but you get the point).
Researchers developed the term, post-inflammatory erythema (PIE), to describe the skin redness that plagued many patients long after their battle with inflammatory acne. According to the researchers, PIE is caused by damaged capillaries (small blood vessels) near the skin surface (source: Easy as PIE, 2013).
Effective treatments for PIE remain unclear, although the researchers of the same paper noted that laser resurfacing (specifically pulsed-dye laser) showed good results in two clinical cases.
For mild cases of PIE, I recommend giving the Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Cream a shot.
This K-Beauty product by South Korean dermatologist Dr. Sung Jae Jung is designed specifically to neutralize redness and protect your skin from environmental damage, using a combination of:
Dr. Jart+ also provided a sample before/after photo which shows reduced redness (YMMV):
My Verdict: If you struggle with constant redness (PIE), the Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Cream is a great product to try out before considering more expensive treatments like laser resurfacing.