Skin lightening has been a practice in various cultures for decades, centuries even.  Each person has his/her own reason for wanting to lighten their skin. In spite of the differences, there are things everyone should know about skin lighteners. 

The general purpose of skin lighteners is to even the skin tone due to hyperpigmentation.  Hyperpigmentation is the condition in which the body produces too much melanin causing an uneven distribution of skin color.  Melanin is produced by a chemical reaction of the tyrosinase enzyme.  Most skin lighteners work by inhibiting the production of tyrosinase and thus prevent overproduction of melanin.  While most are proven to give noticeable results, all must be used with caution.  Skin lighteners are known to cause some skin irritation and photosensitization so they must be used in moderation according to the directions.  The following is a brief description of some veteran and rookie skin lightening treatments.  Pay careful attention to where they come from, how they work and possible side effects.  Make your choice based on the proven facts.

 Hydroquinone is the ultimate veteran skin lightener. It has been used to treat age spots, stretch marks and other forms of hyperpigmentation for generations.  In more recent years, concerns have been raised that hydroquinone may cause cancer although there is no concrete proof.  For this reason, hydroquinone has been banned in several countries.  In the US, the legal concentration of hydroquinone in over the counter and prescription topical creams is moderately regulated.  I mean, there are rules, but lets face it-- the FDA is not really too much on the ball with regulating cosmetic applications.  The maximum OTC concentration is 2% and prescriptions can be written in 2-4% concentrations.  There are still some OTC creams with greater than a 2% concentration and I’ve heard of prescriptions in 6-8%.

 It may take a few weeks to see noticeable results because hydroquinone does not impact the melanin that is already present in the skin.  Existing melanin is eliminated over time by the normal process of skin cell rejuvenation.  When using hydroquinone creams you MUST also use a good sunscreen.  This is true for just about all skin lightening treatments.  You also run the risk of ochronosis which is the condition in which lightened skin gets darker and darker.  The occurrence of ochronosis is rare, but you could be the rare case.  It is advised that you discontinue use of hydroquinone after 6 months of continual use.  Hydroquinone is still regarded as the safest and most efficient chemical skin lightening treatment on the market.

Arbutin is known to be the safest, most effective natural skin lightener.  It is produced in two forms: Alpha - Arbutin and Beta - Arbutin.  Chemically speaking, both forms of Arbutin are actually more complex versions of hydroquinone.  They have the structure of hydroquinone attached to a molecule of glucose (positioned in 2 different ways).  Because of the additional molecule, the hydroquinone is released more slowly and thus has less if any skin irritation properties.  Alpha-Arbutin is much more effective than its Beta counterpart which is due to its higher stability.  Once again it is very important to use sunscreen with either form of Arbutin because it weakens the skin making sun damage a greater possibility.

Niacinamide (Nicotinamide) is another natural skin lightener.  I like it because it can be used in more sensitive areas without concern.  Niacinamide is actually vitamin B3—it is beneficial to the skin and also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Unlike some of the other skin lightening ingredients, niacinamide does not have to be diluted in a cream or gel.  You can purchase niacinamide in capsules and apply directly to the skin or make body masks to apply to the underarms, nipples (really? why?), elbows and knees and also the external genital area.  It is even gentle enough to be applied to the entire face.  The increasing popularity of niacinamide has lead to the sale of lower quality forms.  Be careful that you purchase niacinamide from a reputable source.

The skin lighteners described above are just a few of the treatments available.  In my opinion they are the safest and most effective… they get my recommendation.  I would steer clear of kojic acid and azelaic acid because the level of skin irritation they cause outweighs the lightening properties. 

Special thanks to Desiree Mattox the brains and beauty behind this awesome, kick sass article on skin lightening.  Desiree is the owner of The Glam Scientist. She's a cosmetic chemist and beauty brand strategist located here in the Metro Detroit area.  I can't wait to see what amazing things she does in this industry.