There’re a multitude of skin lightening agents on the market these days. What do they contain and how do they act?
Hydroquinone: This must be one of the most widely used depigmentation agents used in the world. It works mainly by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, which is responsible for the formation of pigmentation in the skin. Very effective and its efficacy has been well established. It does cause some degree of sensitivity in some people, though, so its use should be monitored. It is a primary ingredient in prescription-only topical creams Triluma and Epiquin. Triluma also contains retinoids that complement the lightening process by increasing turnover rate of skin cells.
Arbutin: This acts similarly to hydroquinone, although it has not been proven to be as efficacious. It is found in many cosmetic products.
Kojic acid: This is also widely used as a skin lightener. It is derived from fungus and acts by chelating copper and binding to tyrosinase (the culprit for melanin production). It is widely consumed by the Japanese in their diet for its apparent health benefits and it is also one of the many ingredients in Cosmelan Depigmentation Mask. Occasionally causes irritation and sensitization of the skin.
Azelaic acid: This is a weak inhibitor of tyrosinase. It was initially widely used for acne treatment but has also been found to help lentiges, rosacea and post-inflammatory hyper pigmentation. It is also found in Cosmelan Depigmentation. So who says you can’t do Cosmelan with some active acne?
There are many other topical skin whitening ingredients such as niacinamide (present in Vaseline Beauty White), lignin (found in Elure), licorice extract, bearberry extract and mulberry extract that I am unable to detail all of them here. ISIS Pharma also has a range of Nano White that contains high concentration of Vitamin C, as well as arbutin and licorice extract. I tried it just once and my skin reacted sensitively to it. Therefore, beware: high concentrations of active ingredients in combination may be a tad strong for your skin.
On top of these lightening treatments, you can hasten the effects of lightening with exfoliative procedures e.g. chemical peels with glycolic acid or mandelic acid. These help to remove the top layer of skin where pigment resides and therefore, accelerates the effect of skin whitening. Facial cleansers with alpha-hydroxy acids for home use also helps.
What’s more popular in the world nowadays and very much used in many Asian countries (other than Singapore) is the intravenous (i.e. injection) Vitamin C and other antioxidants e.g. gluthathione for skin whitening. It works very well (amazing results anecdotally, in fact) but has been frowned upon for its high risks of potential harmful effects e.g. Vitamin C toxicity and liver damage, especially if used in high amounts over long periods of time. Exciting but unfortunately not safe enough to be approved for widespread usage. It’s very difficult to find places locally which offer this service and suppliers are also very far and few in between. Horror of horrors, I once had a salesman who tried to sell us the topical powder form for use as injection!!! :O
Moral of the story: if you wanna do it, don’t dream of doing it here. Perhaps things will change some time in the future but as of now, let’s be happy with the topicals, as it is. 🙂