Skin lightening has risen in popularity in recent years largely due to an aging population to treat unwanted pigmentation that occurs as we get older. For a lot of people the problems start as early as 25-30 years old depending upon the amount of sun exposure a person has had with the appearance of brown freckled marks across the cheeks. Pigmentation also often presents itself in the form of melasma on olive and Asian skin types usually in women since melasma is often hormone related and occurs often on the faces of women before and after pregnancy and menopause.
Women are the most common users of skin lightening products because the thicker skin of males is more resistant to sun damage and do not have the same type of hormonal problems associated with melasma. Women have thinner less tough skin that lets the UVA rays penetrate more deeply resulting higher incidences of sun damaged skin in women resulting in unwanted pigmentation. Men also use skin lighteners, sometimes to lighten their overall complexion and to treat spots and skin conditions like vitiligo.
People with darker skin are more susceptible to skin darkening because of their body’s naturally higher ability to create melanin. An increase in melanin production can be caused by sun exposure, skin disease, or trauma to the skin.
Skin Lightening Treatments
The best skin lightening treatment is to avoid direct sunlight upon the skin, limit your time in the sun, and use an effective sunscreen. Many sunscreens limit UVB rays that result in sunburn but don’t protect a person from the UVA rays that result in tanning and pigmentation. We recommend a sunscreen with protectants such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
There are many types of different lightening and whitening products on the market these days to treat pigmentation some more effective than others. An effective skin lightener must rid the skin of the pigmentation and block the production of additional melanin. Some of the main ingredients used in these products are.
Hydroquinone: A somewhat skin lightener and very popular in the United States but banned in Europe and Asia and severely restricted in many parts of the world. Mice fed large amounts of hydroquinone in laboratory tests were discovered to have higher rates of cancer but what makes it most controversial is that Hydroquinone is toxic to melanocytes. It is still available in the US and many commercial skin lightening products contain 2% hyrdroquinone. Its effectiveness is limited though because of its inability to penetrate deeply into the skin. For instance if you have pigmentation marks from acne, hydroquinone alone likely won’t be able to penetrate the skin deeply enough to remove the pigmentation.
Retinoids: Retinoids can have a lightening and brightening effect due to the increased exfoliation that occurs with their use but their main usefulness in skin lightening is to increase penetration to allow other whitening agents to better penetrate the skin. Many lightening products contain .01% tretinoin. Retinoids can also help with pigmentation spots such as freckles by normalizing the irregular groupings of melanocytes.
Mequinol: Due to the problems with Hydroquinone a new lightener has been introduced and approved for use in both the USA and Europe. Mequinol inhibits the precursors that create melanin and it does not damage melanocytes like hydroquinone does.
Tranexamic Acid: Used in Asia for many years in numerous products was originally used to inhibit bleeding during surgeries and other traumatic events when doctors discovered its skin whitening qualities. Tranexamic acid surrounds the pigmented area and works from the outside edges until it is gone. Tranexamic acid reduces melanin production, inhibits tyrosinase a precursor to the creation of melanin and is non irritant and has anti-inflammatory qualities.
Monobenzone: Monobenzone is made from the monobenzyl ether of hyrdoquinone and effective for permanent depigmentation. It is often used as a treatment for Vitiligo. Vitiligo results in the de-pigmentation of skin and is most noticeable in darker skinned people because of its white spots and patches with no pigmentation. Michael Jackson was an advanced vitiligo sufferer who likely used Monobenzone to get rid of the pigmented spots and patches. Monobenzone is one of the strongest skin bleaching agents available.
Kojic Acid: Kojic acid is extracted from a fungus and is a natural skin lightening agent and thought to be as effective as hydroquinone. What makes it less effective is its inability to penetrate deeply into the skin. Kojic acid prevents tyrosinase activity by binding it to the copper in the skin. Penetration can be increased by use of a penetrating agent such as retinoids but skin irritation is often the side effect of deeper penetration with kojic acid. It is a useful ingredient to use though in any lightening product along with other whiteners and is often used to treat melasma in Asia.
Arbutin: Arbutin comes from the leaves of lingonberry a short evergreen shrub, it is also found in wheat and pear skins. Arbutin inhibits tyrosinase production and decreases the amount of melanin created by melanocytes with little evidence of cytotoxicity making it an effective skin lightener.
Ascorbic Acid: Most commonly known as Vitamin C reduces the production of melanin by binding with the copper in the skin to create dopaquinone. Not an effective lightener in low concentrations it can be a skin irritant in higher concentrations and induce peeling in lighter skinned individuals. People with dark skin should avoid ascorbic acid since the same irritation will produce a darkening of the skin.
No single skin lightening product is going to work perfectly for every skin type. It’s important to evaluate your condition, what you’d like to achieve, evaluate their positive and negative effects and find the best product suitable to your type of skin before embarking on any skin lightening regimen.