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Does Retinol Help With Dark Spots?

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 9/16/2020

Have you noticed small, dark patches developing on your skin? Age spots (also known as liver spots — although they have nothing to do with your liver) are small, flat areas of darkened skin that can develop as a result of excessive exposure to sunlight. 

Age spots are a common symptom of skin photoaging. As you’d expect from their name, they usually develop as you get older. 

If you spend a lot of time in the sun and rarely use sun protection, it’s also possible to develop age spots when you’re younger. Age spots are typically light brown to black flat lesions of various sizes

As a topical retinoid, tretinoin can be useful in reducing the visibility of age spots and improving the consistency of your skin pigmentation.

Below, we’ve explained how tretinoin works as a treatment for age spots and skin discoloration, as well as the results you can expect from using tretinoin on areas of your face that have become discolored or hyperpigmented because of sun exposure.

What Are Age Spots?

Age spots are small patches of darkened skin that are caused by prolonged amounts of time spent in the sun. 

Age spots develop through a process called hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation occurs when your skin produces an excessive amount of melanin, resulting in a darkening of affected patches of skin.

Because age spots develop as a direct result of sun exposure, they’re more common in areas such as the hands, face, shoulders and upper back.

Most of the time, age spots are fairly small, measuring anywhere from a several millimeters to a few centimeters. They often develop in small clusters in areas such as the cheeks or shoulders, making them visually obvious and difficult to conceal.

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Does Tretinoin Improve Age Spots?

Studies show that topical tretinoin can lighten age spots, making them less visible. In one study, researchers studied 58 different people with age spots. They found that at the end of the 10-month study, 20 out of the 24 people treated with tretinoin (83 percent) had measurable lightening of their age spots.

In comparison, just 28 percent of patients given the non-therapeutic vehicle showed an improvement in the pigmentation of facial lesions.

Impressed by the results of tretinoin as a treatment for age spots, the researchers extended this study for an additional six months. A total of 15 patients were given either tretinoin cream or a non-therapeutic placebo for an extra six months of treatment.

Interestingly, after six months, many patients who originally used tretinoin cream but switched to a non-therapeutic vehicle still had lighter facial lesions, showing that results from tretinoin might continue even after the treatment ends.

The researchers concluded that tretinoin “significantly improves both clinical and microscopical manifestations of liver spots,” noting that the lesions “do not return for at least six months after therapy is discontinued.”

In simple terms, not only does tretinoin lighten age spots in studies, but the results can continue for months after patients stop actively using tretinoin. 

How Should You Use Tretinoin for Age Spots?

Using tretinoin to lighten age spots is simple. Most people that use tretinoin for age spots and other signs of aging apply the cream daily, typically before going to bed. Our guide to tretinoin for anti-aging covers the entire process of applying tretinoin to your skin.

Many studies of tretinoin for age spot treatment involve the use of a varying degree of both high and low strength concentrations. If you experience side effects from higher concentrations of tretinoin, one way to improve your experience is to switch to a milder version of the product. 

Finally, it’s important to have realistic expectations when using tretinoin. Studies show that it can take several months for tretinoin to lighten dark areas of skin, making it unlikely that you’ll notice an immediate improvement in your skin tone.

Instead, focus on using tretinoin consistently and you’ll notice a gradual improvement over the long term.

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Learn More About Tretinoin for Anti-Aging

Are you concerned about wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and other signs of aging? Widely used as an acne treatment, tretinoin is also highly effective at treating and preventing many of the most common signs of photoaging.

Our guide to using tretinoin to prevent wrinkles and skin aging covers how tretinoin works as an anti-aging treatment, from its effects on skin cell turnover to its ability to reduce the visibility and depth of skin creases. 

It also includes a simple how-to guide to applying tretinoin, from preparing your skin to getting the most from tretinoin after you apply it.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.