Skin lighteners use chemical substances to lighten or whiten the skin. They are controversial because they may negatively impact identity, self image, and health. Hydroquinone, a substance used in some formulas, is banned throughout Europe. In other countries a prescription is required for its use. Formulas most safe for use are usually made in Europe and North America, regions where there are stronger regulations.
There are growing demands for lightening products like Meladerm that lack toxins. Sadly, this also means that products meeting this requirement are often more costly due to higher quality ingredients. Japan and the Pacific are large consumers of products originating from Europe. However, these quality imports are less readily available in poorer locations. In some still developing countries, chemicals banned elsewhere are still widely used.
Lightening creams are applied for different purposes, some more successful than others. For spot treatments they can be applied to moles or birthmarks or other areas with hyperpigmentation. This then makes the spot match its surrounding areas. For vitiligo unaffected areas are lightened to increase the uniformity of the appearance. However, in all cases, using creams to make an overall complexion lighter will always be unsuccessful. They work well only for small areas.
If products are used extensively for long periods of time, side effects can result. These include increased pigmentation of ears, buttocks, toes, and finger joints. The skin of the face can become thin and areas surrounding the eyes may darken.
Most treatments employ a combination of approaches and active ingredients. Some block or reduce melanin production. Others prevent the action of tyrosinase. Some also have a prescription grade retinoid and a sunscreen. Exfoliates are an additional option, such as lasers or peels, and they can eliminate dead surface cells. LED forms of treatments are just beginning to be used with this intent.
Hydroquinone applied topically can be considered as effective and safer than lasers or peels. It is also more cost efficient. It can be purchased in a two percent strong formula in different cosmetics and in a four percent strength with prescriptions. Hydroquinone may also prevent the development of melasma as well.
Azelaic acid can be as effective as hydroquinone and with added benefits. Azelaic acid is much less likely to cause irritation. Tretinoin can lower pigmentation levels due to over exposure to the sun. Extracts from plants and vitamin C also show potential as melanin inhibitors. Niacin amide is another safe option that also improves wrinkles, provides moisture, and reduces acne.
Skin lighteners lighten small amounts of skin with the use of chemicals. They are ineffective on larger areas, and cannot lighten entire complexions. They are somewhat controversial but have a high consumer demand in both developing and in the developed world. Products do differ by location, and chemicals that are elsewhere banned are available in poorer areas with fewer regulations. Some formulas work by inhibiting tyrosinase and melanin. Others have a retinoid and sunscreen as well. Certain products use harsh chemicals to peel away skin or lasers can be used to remove surface layers. Many options exist with different effectiveness and costs.