Although we tend to associate hyperpigmentation with old age, the truth is anyone, at any time, can suffer from it. The result of melanin overproduction, hyperpigmentation can be caused by sun exposure, hormones, post-inflammatory cutaneous trauma and even several diseases like celiac disease or Addison’s disease. Because it is such a common problem, researches are always at work trying to find new and better ways to treat it. Here are seven ingredients that have already been proved to effectively reduce skin discoloration:
Hydroquinone is the most used skin brightening ingredient in the USA and is effective at treating brown spots, melasma and freckles. It works by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme needed to make melanin, and by increasing the breakdown of melanosomes (melanin pigment granules) in the melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin). However, this ingredient has been banned in some countries, including France, because of its side effects. Although the claims it causes cancer are unfounded (Dr Levitt, after reviewing the scientific studies on hydroquinone has found it, in the concentrations used in skincare products – 2% for OTC products and 4% for prescription products – to be safe for humans), it can cause redness and irritation in people with sensitive skin, and allergies.
In addition, hydroquinone can cause ochronosish (a bluish black discoloration of certain tissues) in people with darker skin tones. It’s not clear why this happens yet, but it seems to be linked with excessive sun exposure and the use of resorcinol. Therefore, if you plan to use hydroquinone, pile on the sunscreen and avoid resorcinol. Products containing hydroquinone (avoid those that come in jars as this ingredient degrades when exposed to light and air) include Paula’s Choice RESIST Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser 7% AHA Lotion (2% hydroquinone and 7%AHAs, $19.95), Proactiv Dark Spots Corrector (2% hydroquinone, 4% glycolic acid, $29.15) and Kate Somerville Complexion Correction Spot Reducing Concentrate (2% hydroquinone, $24.99 at Amazon.com).
2. Kojic Acid
Kojic Acid, which is naturally found in soy sauce and sake, has the ability to inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, making it an effective treatment for melasma, freckles and brown spots too. Less effective than hydroquinone (but still a good alternative for those who react negatively to it) kojic acid is highly unstable and gradually loses its efficacy when exposed to light and air. Because of this many companies prefer to use kojic dipalmitate, which is more stable but, as of yet, not proven to have any skin-lightening benefits (it is a powerful antioxidant, though). In addition, kojic acid can cause contact allergy in some people. You can find this ingredient in Pro Strength Skin Lightening Serum with Kojic Acid, Alpha-Arbutin & Vitamin C (4% kojic acid, 2% alpha arbutin and 5% ascorbic acid, $18.99)
3. Azelaic Acid
In addition to being an effective treatment for melasma, brown spots and freckles, azelaic acid is also used to treat acne and rosacea. Derived from grains such as wheat, azelaic acid also works by inhibiting tyrosinase. A 2007 study comparing the efficacy of a 20% azelaic acid cream to that of an 4% hydroquinone cream found that “no significant treatment differences were observed with regard to overall rating, reduction In lesion size, and pigmentary intensity” between the two. Because azelaic acid is most effective at %15-20 concentrations, it is usually found in prescription products such as Azalex and Finacea. OTC skincare products usually contains very low concentrations (1% or less), so consider them only when other skin-lightening agents such as vitamin C or glycolic acid are also included in the formulation.
4. Glycolic Acid
The most commonly used alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid is effective at treating hyperpigmentation and freckles, and at reducing fine lines and skin dullness. It works by exfoliating skin and increasing the speed of cell-turnover, thus removing the “damaged” top layer of the epidermidis, replacing it with the newer, healthier and brighter skin cells underneath. OTC products with glycolic acid contain small concentrations that work effectively, but slowly. Higher concentrations (20% or more) will work much faster, but can cause severe irritation. For this reason, they should be only performed or prescribed by dermatologists.
5. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent the signs of aging as well as reducing skin dullness and sun spots. It does this by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase. Vitamin C is unstable and should be kept away from light and air, or it will degrade and become ineffective. But the main problem with Vitamin C is the difficulty of choosing the right form as there are so many of them. Options include magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, l-ascorbic acid and ascorbyl glucosamine. In addition, most OTC products contains very small amounts of vitamin C that are too low to show significant results. A good, but expensive, option is Skinceutical CE Ferulic Acid (5% l-ascorbic acid, $124.00 at Amazon).
6. Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine
Developed by Olay, Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine can treat skin discolorations and brown spots by inhibiting melanotropin, which controls tyrosinase activity, melanin synthesis and melanosome. This reduces melanin production. Because undecylenoyl phenylalanine is a new ingredient the research, most of which has been done by Procter & Gamble, is limited, but promising. A 2011 study has found a cream with undecylenoyl phenylalanine to be a good alternative to hydroquinone. Undecylenoyl phenylalanine works bets when combined with niacinamide, another ingredient often found in Olay products. You can find both ingredients in Olay Pro-X Even Skin Tone Spot Fading Treatment ($23.99 at Amazon) and Philosophy Miracle Worker Dark Spot Corrector ($57.00 at Amazon).
Developed by researchers at the Stanford University, Lumixyl is a complex of olygopeptides that treats hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase. Lumixyl is a new ingredient too (it was released in 2009), so it hasn’t been widely studied yet. But what we know about it is promising. A 2009 study has found that application of Lumixyl twice a day fior 16 weeks produced a “statistically significant improvement in the appearance of melasma and overall facial aesthetics”. While effective, Lumixyl is expensive. It can be found in Lumixyl Topical Brightening Creme ($99.95 at Amazon).
There are lots of effective ways of treating hyperpigmentations, from the harsher hydroquinone to the milder glycolic acid. Which one to choose depends on what your skin can better tolerate, on your needs, on how deep the discoloration is and even on the colour of your skin. You may also want to consult a dermatologist to better determine what treatment is best for you. Very often, a combination of skin-brightening ingredients (such as hydroquinone and glycolic acid) works best. And don’t forget to apply sunscreen every day to prevent further damage!
Do you suffer from hyperpigmentation? If so, how do you treat it?