Scientific Skincare - How To Get Lighter Skin
Skincare

How To Get Lighter Skin

Whether you have a specific skin concern, such as age spots, melasma, hyperpigmentation, or you are just looking for an overall lighter complexion, you have probably looked for skincare products that promise to lighten skin. From damaging DIY recipes (lemon juice and baking soda have no place in skincare!) to medications with undesirable side effects – how do you know what actually works? Here’s how to get lighter skin safely with OTC skincare products.

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How To Get Lighter Skin With The Right Skincare Ingredients

The majority of lightening treatments work to prevent the production of melanin, the substance that gives our skin its natural color and provides some protection from the sun (although not enough to forgo sunscreen!). They do this by preventing the activity of a key enzyme in the melanin production process – tyrosinase.

Different treatments work at different stages in the melanin production process and can be described as working either before melanin production takes place, during melanin production, or after melanin production.

For example, they may work by preventing certain proteins and genes from communicating with each other in order to begin the melanin production process, regulating the activity of tyrosinase within cells if the genetic information has already been shared, and by preventing the spread of the melanin that has already been produced into surrounding cells.

Very few skincare ingredients are able to act at all three points of melanin production which means that you often need to combine multiple ingredients in order to get lighter skin.

In fact, the gold-standard prescription treatment for lightening skin (known as the Kligman formula) includes three different medications that act at each stage of the melanin production process. Tretinoin works before melanin production, hydroquinone works during melanin production, and corticosteroids work after melanin production.

While this combination has proved to be very effective for achieving lighter skin, it is not without side-effects. Examples of these side effects include; thinning of the skin, changes to skin pigmentation (e.g. light or dark patches of skin), visible blood vessels in the skin, and birth defects if used during pregnancy.

However, there are a number of OTC skincare ingredients and products that can achieve similar effects to these medications individually and can be even more effective when combined together in a similar way to the Kligman formula.

 

How To Get Lighter Skin With OTC Skincare Products & Ingredients

Skincare ingredients that lighten skin can be split into three main categories; those that lighten skin by preventing melanin production from beginning, those that lighten skin by reducing the amount of melanin produced, and those that lighten skin by targeting existing melanin production and reducing the amount that can spread to surrounding cells.

Skincare Ingredients that lighten skin by preventing melanin production before it can occur include:

  • Retinoids (e.g. retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, retinoic acid)
  • N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG)
  • Ceramides
  • Sphingosines (e.g. phytosphingosine)

 

Skincare Ingredients that lighten skin by reducing the amount of melanin produced during melanin production include:

  • Arbutin
  • Kojic Acid
  • Phenols (e.g. flavonoids, phenolic acid, catechin, epicatechin – usually found in plant-based products/antioxidants – e.g. resveratrol/grape seed, green tea, etc.)
  • Resveratrol
  • Aloe Vera
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Zinc
  • Possibly AHAs (less research to support AHAs than for other ingredients)

 

Skincare ingredients that lighten skin after melanin production has already occurred by reducing the spread of melanin to surrounding cells:

  • Niacinamide
  • Soybean Extracts
  • Licorice Extract
  • Linoleic Acid
  • Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid
  • Phenols (e.g. flavonoids, phenolic acid, catechin, epicatechin – usually found in plant-based products/antioxidants – e.g. resveratrol/grape seed, green tea, etc.)

The Key Players:

 

Retinol & Other OTC Retinoids

Retinoids are a catch-all term for vitamin A derivatives that range from retinol to retinoic acid (tretinoin). As mentioned above, retinoids work to lighten skin before the melanin production process begins. In addition, they also increase skin cell turnover which can help bring pigment to the surface of the skin where it can be shed faster.

0.1% adapalene gel has also proven to be effective at lightening some types of dark marks, including those left behind after acne. Other forms of retinoid, such as retinol and retinaldehyde offer similar lightening effects but it takes much longer to see results.

 

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid that is naturally produced by a yeast that lives on the skin. It is selective towards abnormal pigment, such as the pigment caused by inflammation or sun damage but has little effect on normal pigment and freckles. This means that it can lighten age spots and other dark marks but is less effective at lightening the skin overall.

When used alone, it can be as effective as 2% hydroquinone at reducing hyperpigmentation and when combined with glycolic acid it can be as effective as 4% hydroquinone. These findings are based on prescription strength azelaic acid and OTC strengths may take longer to see results.

 

Niacinamide

Niacinamide is a water-soluble form of vitamin B3 which has a number of benefits for skin. It can reduce the spread of melanin to surrounding skin cells by up to 68%. It can also prevent sun-induced melanin production and offers overall lightening benefits similar to that of hydroquinone.

 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in the skin and helps to protect the skin from sun damage. In the form of ascorbic acid (the most biologically active form of vitamin C), it is equally as effective as 4% hydroquinone at lightening skin and dark spots.

 

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is the antioxidant found in grapes and red wine that is often overlooked in skincare, particularly when it comes to lightening skin. However, it actually targets melanin production at multiple stages.

Research has demonstrated that resveratrol may be a better skin lightening treatment than hydroquinone, arbutin, AND vitamin C!

 

 

How To Get Lighter Skin By Combining Multiple Skincare Ingredients

Combining skincare ingredients is confusing at the best of times – does pH matter? Should you layer the ingredients or use them at separate times of the day? Are you going to end up with sensitized skin?

When it comes to lightening skincare ingredients, most of the time you are going to want to combine three different ingredients which can add even more confusion! Here are some examples of how to get lighter skin by combining multiple lightening ingredients:

  • Retinol (PM only) + Niacinamide (AM & PM) + Zinc (AM & PM)
  • Retinaldehyde (PM Only) + Glycolic Acid (PM) + Vitamin C (AM & PM)
  • Azelaic Acid (AM & PM) + Ceramides (AM & PM) + Licorice Extract (AM & PM)
  • Niacinamide (AM & PM) + NAG (AM & PM) + Kojic Acid (AM & PM)
  • Resveratrol (AM & PM) + Retinol (PM Only) + Green Tea (AM & PM)
  • Azelaic Acid (AM & PM) + Retinol (PM Only) + Vitamin C (AM & PM)

These are only examples of possible combinations, there are plenty of different ways of combining ingredients, but the key is to include one ingredient from each of the 3 groups (before/during/after melanin production).

When it comes to the pH levels of ingredients, differing pH levels are rarely an issue as each ingredient has to adapt to your skin’s natural pH level anyway (4.7 – 5.5). However, if you have particularly sensitive skin you may want to avoid combining retinol, AHA, and vitamin C all at the same time. For example, you could use vitamin C in the morning only, then combine retinol and glycolic acid at night, or if that is still an issue for your skin, you could use glycolic acid and retinol on alternate nights.

There are also a number of skincare products that already combine some of these ingredients for you. Often these are formulated in a way that adjusts for pH differences and reduces the risk of skin irritation.

 

Here are some examples:

 

Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Boost

Lightening ingredients include: Niacinamide, NAG, Licorice Root Extract, ECGC (Green Tea Extract), Vitamin C.

To cover all three groups, pair with: N/A – Covers All Three Ingredient Groups

how to get lighter skin with niacinamide

Buy Now From Amazon

 

Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster

Lightening ingredients include: Azelaic Acid, Licorice Root Extract.

To cover all three groups, pair with: Retinoids or Ceramides.

how to get lighter skin with azelaic acid

Buy Now From Amazon

 

Avene Eau Thermale TriAcneal Night

Lightening ingredients include: Retinaldehyde, Glycolic Acid.

To cover all three groups, pair with: Vitamin C, Niacinamide, Vitamin E, Green Tea, Resveratrol, or Licorice Extract.

Buy Now From Amazon

 

Replenix Power of 3 Serum

Lightening ingredients include: Resveratrol, Green Tea.

To cover all three groups, pair with: Retinol or Ceramides.

Buy Now From Amazon

 

Replenix RetinolForte Treatment

Lightening ingredients include: Retinol, Green Tea Polyphenols.

To cover all three groups, pair with: N/A – Covers All Three Ingredient Groups.

Buy Now From Amazon

 

 

CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum

Lightening ingredients include: Vitamin C, Ceramides, Phytosphingosine.

To cover all three groups, pair with: Arbutin, Kojic Acid, Green Tea, Resveratrol, Azelaic Acid, Aloe Vera, or Zinc.

Buy Now From Amazon

 

 

Other Tips For How To Get Lighter Skin

 

  1. Wear a High UVA Sunscreen Every DayDaily sunscreen use is the best thing that you can do for your skin, especially if you want to reduce and prevent dark marks and/or achieve a lighter overall complexion. UVA radiation particularly activates melanin production which can cause age spots and ‘tanning’ – did you know that UVA radiation is still an issue even if you’re indoors all day?
  2. Choose A Sunscreen With Added Iron Oxide – Some evidence suggests that certain skin conditions such as melasma and rosacea can be activated by visible light as well as UVA and UVB radiation. This is particularly the case for high energy visible (HEV) light. The addition of iron oxides into sunscreen can extend protection into the longer UVA and visible light spectrum, which is particularly beneficial for those with melasma. Check out some sunscreens with iron oxide here.
  3. Practice Sun-Safe Behaviours – Always apply the correct amount of sunscreen (2mg/cm2 – a nickel-sized dollop for the face and about two tablespoons for the face and exposed areas of the body and reapply frequently (every 2 hours is considered ideal). Avoid sun exposure during midday hours (11 am – 3 pm), seek shade where possible, and cover-up as much as possible (e.g. wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, protective clothing, etc.).
  4. Avoid Picking At Skin – In some skin types (usually Fitzpatrick types III and darker) inflammation can stimulate melanin production, which is why some people end up with dark marks from spots and pimples.

 

Summary – How To Get Lighter Skin

In order to get lighter skin and treat dark marks, you need to look for skincare ingredients and products that prevent melanin production. These ingredients usually work in one of three ways:

  • By preventing certain proteins and genes from communicating with each other in order to begin the melanin production process (Before Melanin Production).
  • By regulating the activity of tyrosinase within cells if the genetic information has already been shared (During Melanin Production).
  • By preventing the spread of the melanin that has already been produced into surrounding cells (After Melanin Production).

For maximum effectiveness, you ideally want to include an ingredient that works before melanin production, one that works during melanin production, and one that works after melanin production.

In addition, effective sun protection is absolutely essential!

If you’re interested in more detailed information about lightening ingredients, check out our post on Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation which goes into more detail about clinical research studies.

 

 

References

  1. Callender, V., St Surin-Lord, S., Davis, E. et al. (2011). ‘Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation: etiologic and therapeutic considerations’, Am J Clin Dermatol., 12, 87-99. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21348540?dopt=Abstract
  2. Halder, R. & Richards, G. (2004). ‘Topical agents used in the management of hyperpigmentation’, Skin Therapy Letter, 9(6), Available at: https://www.skintherapyletter.com/hyperpigmentation/topical-agents/
  3. Verallo-Rowell, V., Verallo, V., Graupe, K. et al. (1989). ‘Double-blind comparison of azelaic acid and hydroquinone in the treatment of melasma’, Acta Derm Venereol Suppl (Stockh), 143, 58-61. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2528260
  4. Kakita, L. & Lowe, N. (1998). ‘Azelaic acid and glycolic acid combination therapy for facial hyperpigmentation in darker-skinned patients: a clinical comparison with hydroquinone’, Clin Ther, 20(5), 960-970. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9829447
  5. Hakozaki, T., Minwalla, L., Zhuang, J. et al. (2002). ‘The effect of niacinamide on reducing cutaneous pigmentation and suppression of melanosome transfer’, Br J Dermatol., 147(1), 20-31. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12100180
  6. Espinal-Perez, L., Moncada, B. & Castanedo-Cazares, J. (2004). ‘A double-blind randomized trial of 5% ascorbic acid vs. 4% hydroquinone in melasma’, Int J Dermatol, 43(8), 604-607. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15304189/
  7. , J., Shin, J., Choi, H., Kwon, S. & Park, K. (2019). ‘Resveratrol as a multifunctional topical hypopigmenting agent’, Int J Mol Sci., 20(4), pp. 956. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6412432/
  8. Hagiwara, K., Okura, M., Sumikawa, Y., Hilda, T., Kuno, A., Horio, Y. & Yamashita, T. (2016). ‘Biochemical effects of the flavanol-rich lychee fruit extract on the melanin biosynthesis and reactive oxygen species’, J Dermatol., 43(10), 1174-1183. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26970333/

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Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.

One Comment

  • Sarah Leone

    Thank you for this post. As someone who has struggled with melasma for years, it’s nice to see there are other actives I can incorporate into my skincare to help control my pigment. What are your thoughts on using resveratrol at night with my retin-a and hydroquinone? Can I mix those ingredients without any contradictions?

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