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The 411 on Skin Lighteners

Want to even out your skin tone? From sun damage to acne scars, these new potions can help.

By Elizabeth B. Krieger

Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD

WebMD Feature

You look in the mirror one day and notice some patchy areas of discolored skin on your face or neck. What's going on? Any number of things, as it turns out. Perhaps too much time in the sun has robbed you of your smooth complexion. Maybe you have dark acne scars. Or maybe hormonal changes have left you with permanent discoloration. If so, skin lighteners (also called skin bleaching creams or skin brighteners) can help.

"For people looking to fade dark spots, zap sun damage, and even out the color of their skin overall, skin lightening creams are a potent tool," says Leslie Baumann, MD, a Miami dermatologist and author of The Skin Type Solution.

Most products work in the same manner. They stymie the enzyme that makes the cells that generate the color in your skin -- otherwise known as melanin. A few key ingredients can accomplish this, notably hydroquinone, arbutin, and kojic acid. You can get both over-the-counter products as well as stronger ones from your dermatologist. (Because of its potency, hydroquinone is regulated at 2% or less in OTC products.) Some popular drugstore brands take a gentler route, harnessing the power of soy or licorice to slowly brighten skin.

Patience is key if you decide to try one of these products. "Because of the life cycle of skin cells and the color-making process, you'll wait about 8 to 12 weeks before you begin to see a real difference," Baumann says. Some doctors suggest using a retinoid product (such as Retin-A) along with the lightener to help speed things up.

The dark side, so to speak, to slathering on these creams -- particularly the strongest ones -- can be greater skin irritation and risk of sunburn. That means super-diligent use of sunscreen, steroid creams such as hydrocortisone to tamp down inflammation, and creams rich in antioxidants to help squelch irritation and protect skin from further damage.

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