The 411 on Skin Lighteners

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

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on September 11, 2014

You look in the mirror one day and notice some patchy areas of discolored skin on your face and neck. What's going on?

Any number of things, 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 lasting 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 stop the enzyme that makes the cells that generate the color in your skin -- otherwise known as melanin. A few key ingredients can accomplish this: hydroquinone, arbutin, and kojic acid. 

You can get both over-the-counter products as well as stronger ones from your dermatologist. 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 skin irritation and a greater risk of sunburn. So use sunscreen (SPF 30) every day, even when it rains. Steroid creams such as hydrocortisone can tamp down inflammation, and creams rich in antioxidants can help squash irritation and protect skin from further damage.

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Leslie Baumann, MD, founder, University of Miami Cosmetic Medicine & Research Institute, Miami, FL; author, The Skin Type Solution, Bantam Dell, 2006.

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