What Skin Brighteners Actually Do to the Skin?

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Last Updated: Feb 16, 2017

Hyper pigmentation is one of the most common reasons why people seek help from a dermatologist. The treatment for hyperpigmentation usually involves the use of skin brighteners – cosmetic products that lighten the skin. These products can be purchased over-the-counter or they can be prescribed by a dermatologist. Their efficiency in improving the skin’s appearance is now widely-known. However, there is also a great deal of controversy regarding skin brighteners not only because of their misuse but also due to rising concerns regarding their safety. Knowing what skin brighteners actually do to your skin to make it look lighter can be of tremendous help when deciding whether to use or not to use these products.

What are Skin Brighteners?

Rachel Nazarian of the Schweiger Dermatology Group says that the word “brightening” is used pretty loosely these days and can mean anything from “lightening”, “fading” or “bleaching”. However, to simplify things, we’ll refer to skin brightening as the use of cosmeceuticals with the purpose of improving the appearance of unevenly darkened skin. Today’s skin brighteners are serums, lotions, and creams that contain one or more ingredients that lighten the skin. A popularly used ingredient in skin brighteners is hydroquinone – a phenolic compound that naturally occurs in propolis and some mushroom species. Some skin brighteners may contain other ingredients such as antioxidants (primarily vitamins C and E), botanical extracts, and exfoliating agents (salicylic and glycolic acid). However, hydroquinone has been the most efficient of all skin brighteners up until this day.

Skin Brighteners

How Do They Work?

An article published in the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology website explains that hydroquinone works by decreasing melanin production by interfering with certain enzymes in the skin. Melanin is a dark pigment produced by the oxidation of the amino acid tyrosine in skin cells called melanocytes. This pigment serves an important function in protecting the skin from UV damage. Melanin can disperse up to 99.9% of UV light according to a study published in Photochemistry & Photobiology. However, too much sun exposure, inflammation from acne, and hormonal changes can lead to melanin being unevenly deposited in the skin which leads to the appearance of dark spots, freckles, and melasma – collectively known as hyperpigmentation. Hydroquinone can reverse these skin changes and lead to an evened-out and lighter skin tone.


The Problem with Hydroquinone

Although hydroquinone is effective in improving the appearance of hyperpigmented skin, there are some setbacks to this common skin brightening ingredients. Since hydroquinone reduces the amount of melanin in your skin, this also means your skin becomes prone to sun damage. Without melanin, there to protect the skin, you run the risk of sunburn and premature skin aging. Furthermore, studies on orally administered hydroquinone have found that it increases the risk of cancer and when misused can lead to skin diseases. For these reasons, the FDA has even once considered banning hydroquinone. However, a systematic review published in Journals of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery states that these studies were based on the oral use of hydroquinone and no studies on the topical application of this skin brightening agent found any link to cancer. When used moderately, hydroquinone is considered to be completely safe.

Other Ingredients

Sometimes, hydroquinone alone cannot produce the desired results and a dermatologist may prescribe a combination with retinoids and steroids. The problem with such therapies is that they may cause skin irritation. For this reason, research has started to focus on alternative skin brightening agents such as vitamin C, vitamin E, niacinamide, kojic acid, and others. Even though these ingredients are less efficient in brightening the skin, they are much safer than hydroquinone. Vitamin C and E work differently than hydroquinone in that they prevent oxidative stress. They also reduce skin inflammation which can lead to post inflammatory hyper pigmentation and make the skin more resilient to sun damage. Additionally, exfoliating agents such as salicylic and glycolic acid can make the skin look lighter.

How to Take Care of Your Skin?

Care of Your Skin

Dermatologists always emphasize the importance of using broad spectrum sunscreen when using any skin brightener. Interfering with your skin’s natural pigment production always makes it sensitive to the sun. Also, use skin brighteners moderately and as prescribed by a dermatologist. Misuse of skin brighteners containing hydroquinone and other bleaching agents can lead to permanent skin damage, most notably exogenous ochronosis. Ochronosis is a condition characterized by diffused discoloration in the skin, loss of elasticity, and roughened areas. The condition is difficult to treat and it is best to use hydroquinone moderately to prevent the disorder from taking place.

See more: Do You Want To Develop A Skin Care Regime?


Skin changes caused by acne, hormones, or sunlight are easy to correct with today’s skin brighteners. These products work by interfering with melanin production or reducing oxidative stress. Since melanin is a type of pigment that protects our skin from the sun, reducing its concentrations in the skin also means the skin becomes prone to sun damage. This is why it is so important to use skin brighteners wisely and moderately.

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