Skin lightening, skin whitening or skin bleaching is the practice of using chemicals to lighten the skin or to create an even skin tone by minimizing concentrations of melanin that can appear for several reasons.
Skin lightening is nothing new – it has a long history in Japan, China and India where light complexions were seen as a noble and aristocratic trait. Today the pursuit of clear, bright and even-toned skin is more popular than ever – but before being drawn into the marketing hype of the dozens of skin lightening products, it’s best to know more about how some of the processes and products work.
There are a number of products and ingredients that can lighten dark skin and patches. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective as skin whitening agents, however, some of these have proved to be toxic when used for extended periods of time and should be used with caution.
Hydroquinone is a strong inhibitor of melanin production. In different concentrations, hydroquonine blocks the skin’s ability to synthesize melanin thereby reducing, and even eliminating brown discolorations. However, hydroquinone does not bleach the skin and it cannot remove pigment from the skin cell. Over-the-counter hydroquinone products contain 0.5% – 2% concentrations – higher concentrations of 4% are only available from a physician. In some cases, the long-term use of hydroquinone can lead to skin irritation and may even lead to darkening of the skin. The potent chemical can also cause a skin reaction called Ochronosis, a condition in which the skin becomes irritated, inflamed, reddened, thickened and more densely pigmented on the area affected.
Azelaic acid is derived from grains such as wheat, rye and barley and is considered very effective when applied topically in a cream at 15-20% concentrations for a number of skin conditions, including skin discoloration. Lower concentrations (usually less than 1%) are found in many cosmetic skincare products but is less effective unless combined with other ingredients such as retinol, vitamin C or AHAs(alpha hydroxy acids).
AHAs and BHA Chemical Peels
AHAs (alpha hydroxyl acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) can be effective in inhibiting melanin formation while stimulating cell turnover of the top layers of the skin – making these products twice as nice! When used as part of a skincare routine, AHA and BHA peels can be very effective for improving the overall appearance of pigmented skin.
Tretinoin and Retinol
Derived from vitamin A, prescription strength topical creams such as Renova and Retin-A are effective for treating skin discolorations, although research suggests that this treatment is less effective than topical treatments of Hydroquinone or Azelaic Acid. Results generally take longer with Tretinoin, requiring at least six months or more before improvement is seen. Tretinoin does, however, improve cell production, collagen, elasticity, skin texture and dermal thickness. With that in mind, Tretinoin is often combined with more effective skin lightening treatments to deliver a more powerful, rejuvenating result.
Laser and Light Treatments
Pigment that is deep in the dermis generally does not respond to topical treatments. Resurfacing procedures like chemical peels are helpful but may require several treatments. Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and laser treatments are more effective, and the results are permanent as long as you apply sunscreen daily to prevent future discoloration. People with darker skin types (Skin Types 4 -6) may experience hyperpigmentation from light or laser treatments, so consulting with your skincare professional before laser or light treatment is always advisable.
Regardless of what approach you chose for lightening dark patches of melanin – the consistent and persistent use of sunscreen (even when you don’t go outside) is the first step in keeping your skin tone even, light and bright.
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- Fraxel Laser Resurfacing (healthyskinsolutions.com)
- Sunscreen: New Guidelines this Summer (healthyskinsolutions.com)
- Seeing Spots? What are Dark Spots on the Skin? (healthyskinsolutions.com)
- Photo Facial – For Clearer, Brighter, More Radiant Skin (healthyskinsolutions.com)