When it comes to tackling spots, discoloration and melasma on the face, the first thing your doctor may prescribe (in addition to loading up on sunscreen every day) is hydroquinone. But, not everyone is keen on the ingredient because of the potential for skin to become irritated. And, some patients are concerned about developing ochronosis (brown, gray, blue or black patches and bumps). New York dermatologist Sapna Westley, MD, says that in some countries, hydroquinone is banned, although the dermatologic community stateside, as well as the FDA, have found no carcinogenic effects at the current strengths that hydroquinone is available at. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use other ingredients and treatments to tackle unwanted discoloration and dramatically lighten up your skin. These alternatives work just as well.
Vitamin C is one of those beauty ingredients that packs a whole lot of punch. And one of its best-known uses is for lightening and brightening the skin. “It has the ability to interfere with melanin production by interacting with the copper ion in tyrosinase,” says Norwalk, CT, dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD. Despite the fact that the vitamin is loaded with anti-aging and antioxidant properties, it basically stops melanin from being produced because it interacts with the copper in tyrosinase.
When used in conjunction with the right at-home skin care products, professional peels can help improve skin tone. “In office peels that use glycolic, mandelic or salyclic acids can be added to the mix every month to make a significant difference,” says Miami dermatologist Dr. Janice Lima Maribona.
When it comes to lightening up discoloration, acids may be recommended because they exfoliate away any melanin that lives in the uppermost layer of skin. “They also work on the synthesis of melanin the skin,” says Dr. Westley. “Glycolic acid is also a good alternative to hydroquinone, especially if it is used for exfoliation because it will help improve skin texture and fine lines and wrinkles.” Azaleic and kojic acids can be used to help block tyrosinase to even out the color of the skin. “Kojic acid, a Japanese mushroom, lightens skin by suppressing production of the tyrosinase, which lowers the quantity of melanin created,” says celebrity aesthetician Susan Ciminelli.
Retinol and retinoids
Any extract of vitamin A (retinol, retinoids and tretinoin) helps to slowly erase away discoloration, especially if the cause is related to acne or the sun. As Dr. Mraz Robinson explains, topical retinoids and retinols can be used to reduce epidermal pigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover. “They can thereby also increase the efficacy of other topicals,” she says.
Arbutin is the one ingredient that most rivals hydroquinone—in fact, it’s often called the “natural hydroquinone” because of its similar chemical composition minus the potential side effects and risk associated with hydroquinone. Derived from bearberry leaves, arbutin (as well as alpha-arbutin which is a more powerful, synthetic formula) works by, “ Slowing down melanosome maturation so that melanin can’t be transported to the top layer of skin,” says Dr. Lima Maribona.
Los Angeles aesthetician Marianne Kehoe explains that ingredients like niacinamide, which work on lightening pigment over the course of a few months, aren’t harmful or toxic to the skin. “I don’t like to cause inflammation to the skin, and many lightening products out there use ingredients that are bad for it. I like Osmosis Enlighten ($65), which is a powerful lightening serum that uses niacinamide and epilobium angustifolium flower extract to brighten.”
According Dr. Lima Maribona, licorice extract mimics tyrosinase (the enzyme that allows for the production of melanin) and “fakes it out” so that the enzyme is basically consumed. Celebrity aesthetician Gina Marí adds that licrorice contains an active called glabridin, which inhibits tyrosinase the enzyme that creates pigmentation in response to sun exposure. It can also help reduce the appearance of pigmentation. But, on the flipside, Dr. Lima Maribona says that licorice may aid in dispersing pigment, so you need to be super careful if this is your brightening ingredient of choice.