Whitening creams can diminish or prevent dark skin patches caused by medical conditions or aging, or provide all-over lightening for cosmetic reasons. Prescription and over-the-counter creams contain a variety of active ingredients that get the job done. Just remember that while you're on a whitening regime, you must wear sunscreen to shield your skin from pigment-provoking ultraviolet light.
Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, occur naturally in some food products, but they can also be man-made. The most common types found in skin creams are glycolic acid, from sugar cane, and lactic acid, found in milk. Both have lightening properties. These AHAs follow a two-pronged approach to battling skin discoloration. They suppress the skin’s natural production of the pigment melanin, preventing the formation of dark patches. At the same time, their exfoliating properties speed up the skin’s renewal process to help fresh, non-pigmented skin grow.
If you prefer natural products, look for over-the-counter whitening creams containing azelaic acid, found in wheat, rye and barley, and kojic acid, derived from fungi. Azelaic acid is also available in stronger concentrations by prescription. Other natural whitening ingredients include arbutin, an extract of bearberry leaves; a study published in the "Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin," showed that it reduced melanin production by up to 40 percent. Tests reported in the "Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology" have shown that vitamin C can also reduce pigmentation in some patients. Licorice and ginseng -- two roots used for centuries in ancient Chinese medicine -- also have skin-whitening properties.
Turn to Science
Man-made ingredients found in skin-whitening creams include niacinamide, mequinol and monobenzone. Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is effective for general skin brightening; it is included in many anti-aging products and in lightening creams sold in Asian countries. Fade dark patches known as liver spots, caused by the aging process or overexposure to the sun, with creams containing mequinol. Treat vitiligo, a condition that results in pale patches on the skin, with creams that lighten the skin around the pale areas. One medication prescribed for this is monobenzone, which should be used carefully as its effects are permanent. Hydroquinone is another ingredient found in whitening creams.
Proceed With Caution
Stay clear of any skin creams containing mercury, which may appear on ingredient labels as “calomel” and “mercurous chloride.” The toxic metal can damage the kidneys and nervous system, and disrupt brain development in unborn babies. Young children can be affected just by breathing in the vapors.
- Dr. Oz Show: Staying Safe with Skin Lightening
- Cosmetics Info: Alpha Hydroxy Acids
- Experimental Dermatology: The inhibitory effect of glycolic acid and lactic acid on melanin synthesis in melanoma cells
- Indian Journal of Dermatology: Topical Treatment of Melasma
- New York University Langone Medical Center: Melasma
- New York University Langone Medical Center: Vitamin B3
- British Journal of Dermatology: The Effect of Niacinamide on Reducing Cutaneous Pigmentation and Suppression of Melanosome Transfer
- PubMed Health: Mequinol/Tretinoin (On the Skin)
- The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: Successful Treatment of Extensive Vitiligo with Monobenzone
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Uva Ursi