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Top 7 Skin Lightening Agents for Dark Spots and Scars on the Skin

“It’s one of the most common skin concerns I see,” says Dr. Miriam Hanson, dermatologist and skin care expert at Sanova Dermatology. “Whether it’s melasma, age spots, in acne scars, or from a trauma, patients are concerned about discoloration.”

“In general, marks can appear on the skin after some sort of trauma,” explains Dr. Adam Mamelak, dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Austin, “but trauma comes in many forms. We’re not always talking about a cut surgical incision. A sun burn, an inflammation acne bump, even an allergic rash can all result in different forms of trauma to the skin.”

When the skin experiences trauma, then you might be at risk for hyperpigmentation or an increase in pigment in the skin. This discoloration is the result of pooling of melanin (the pigment molecule found in all our skin cells), and it is typically due to the skin being broken. People with darker complexions tend to have the tendency of the skin creating too much melanin when it is scratched or damaged.

“Thankfully, advances in skin care have come a long way in this regard,” says Dr. Hanson. “There are a number of skin lightening agents that can help alleviate these unsightly marks. These agents have made their way in to an number of skin care products.

Top Skin Lightening Ingredients In Skin Care Products

Kojic Acid: Kojic acid is a natural byproduct of fermenting malt rice. It has been found that Kojic acid actually suppresses the formation of melanin. Kojic acid is soluble in water, and it is typically found in 1 to 3% concentrations. As the skin naturally exfoliates, the Kojic acid will cause the new skin to match your normal skin tone, eventually causing the dark spot to become more uniform. Kojic acid is an effective treatment for people of all skin colors. It’s natural origins allow it to be suitable for most skin types.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that has naturally exfoliating properties to it. Vitamin C increases cellular turnover, improving the overall appearance of the skin. Vitamin C is typically formulated in skin care products that are pH controlled to improve its efficacy. Vitamin C is sometimes called L-ascorbic acid. You will find that vitamin C can be found in lotions, creams, and many sun care products.

Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone is considered one of the top ingredients when it comes to skin lightening. Hydroquinone inhibits the formation of melanin, with most drugstore formulations coming in a 2% solution. Higher concentrations are only available via prescription. Hydroquinone in conjunction with tretinoin is known to help with individuals suffering from melasma. Some risks have been expressed about the safety of hydroquinone – but it is still heralded as a safe treatment for hyperpigmentation. Perceived risks are due to extremely high concentration or by using it with other skin lightening ingredients like mercury.

Arbutin: Arbutin tends to be heralded as a natural alternative to hydroquinone. Arbutin is derived from bearberry and mulberry plants. Arbutin, like hydroquinone, disrupts the production of melanin. Purer forms of Arbutin tends to be more effective when it comes to lightening. Arbutin usually is categorized under alpha or beta formulations. The alpha type tends to be more stable and is the preferred form to be used on the skin.

Licorice root: Not just in Twizzlers! Licorice is believed to possess anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. When applied to the skin, licorice extract prevents ultraviolet light-induced hyperpigmentation and inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the production of pigment in the skin. The extract can also increase dispersion of pigment in the skin, causing lightening of dark marks.

Glycolic Acid: This alpha hydroxy acid is derived from sugar cane and can be found in washes, topical creams, and chemical peel preparations. Glycolic acid has been shown to brighten the skin, treat acne and acne scars, and lighten darkly pigmented spots and discoloration on the skin. Glycolic acid works by exfoliating the skin, turning over pigmented skin cells, causing them to shed more rapidly. Glycolic acid can be combined with other lightening agents, such as hydroquinone to make it work more effectively.

Retinoids: These Vitamin A derivatives include over the counter retinol-containing products, as well as prescription tretinoin (Retin-A, Atralin), adapaline (Differin, Epiduo) and tarazotene (Tazorac). Retinoids inhibit the activity of enzyme tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is responsible for producing pigment in the skin. Retinoids have also been shown to help exfoliate and turn over the skin, help control acne breakouts and even treat fine lines and wrinkles by inducing collagen formation in the skin.

Contact Us

To understand your options when it comes to dark spots, melasma, and other forms of hyperpigmentation, contact us at Sanova Dermatology at 512-837-3376 and schedule your consultation with one of our board-certified dermatologists.


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