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Skin Lightening Agents

By Bernard I. Raskin, M.D.

As long summer days come to an end some of us may be noticing a few new brown spots where there weren’t any before. First and foremost we always suggest you see your dermatologist to determine the nature of these spots. If in fact these are diagnosed as hyperpigmentation or melasma then a skin lightening program can help fade these spots away.

There are several ingredients that help remove undesired pigment. Hydroquinone has been the most widely and successfully used skin lightening agent for the treatment of hyperpigmentation. Hydroquinone (HQ) treats hyperpigmentation on a cellular level by inhibiting tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is a copper-containing enzyme in plant and animal tissue that catalyzes the production of melanin, or dark pigments found in the skin. HQ is available over the counter in strengths up to 2%, prescription strengths of HQ are usually 4% or higher as determined by your physician.

Kojic acid is a non prescription strength tyrosinase inhibitor, it is used both topically as a skin lightening agent and is often more effective when used in combination with other ingredients such as vitamin C.

Derived from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables, topical vitamin C is another great ingredient to look for in a skin lightening agent. Vitamin C and stable vitamin C derivatives such as L-ascorbic interfere with pigment production as well as having the ability to lighten different types of pigmentation.

Glycolic acid is another important cosmeceutical (a cosmetic product claimed to have medicinal or drug-like benefits) that has skin lightening properties. Glycolic acid shortens the cell cycle so that pigment is lost more rapidly. Peels with a high concentration of glycolic acid that remove the superficial layers of the skin have been found to enhance the penetration of other skin lighteners such as hydroquinone.

As skin lightening creams work well for most people, sun exposure can significantly reverse the effects. It is strongly recommended that you apply sun screen daily and wear protective clothing when possible.

While all theses agents produce skin lightening affects on their own, studies show that using them in combination can be more affective. Skin lightening creams containing these ingredients are available in prescription and non prescription strengths. See your dermatologist to determine if a skin lightening cream is right for you.

For more information please contact Advanced Dermatology & Cosmetic Care at 661.254.3686 or visit