The practice of using chemicals to lighten or even the skin tone is called skin bleaching or skin whitening. There are several different chemicals available commercially for skin whitening, though some of them are toxic or otherwise unsafe. Select skin whitening products carefully and be aware of any potential side effects.
Skin whitening is sometimes used for medical reasons. Moles and birthmarks with high pigmentation are lightened to match the surrounding skin. In case of vitiligo, the rest of the skin may be lightened to match the pigmentation of the affected areas.
Skin whitening agents usually attempt to block the absorption of tyrosinase in the skin. There are topical lotions and gels that inhibit melanin production and include sunscreen.
There are also retinoid products only available with a prescription. In addition to these at-home treatments, skin lightening can be accomplished with chemical peels and lasers.
If you are using a skin whitening agent, especially one containing retinoic acid, you have to make sure you wear sunscreen and avoid excessive exposure to sunlight. The skin can tan and become darker again. Retinoic acid makes the skin more sensitive to the ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight.
Another powerful skin lightening chemical is hydroquinone. It prevents the body from manufacturing melatonin, the agent that makes skin darker in the first place. Concentrations around 2% can be purchased over the counter, while concentrations above 4% require a prescription. Rather than bleaching the skin, hydroquinone lightens it and prevents the skin from producing any more melanin.
Hydoquinone has been shown to be relatively safe, though some studies suggest it is linked to leukemia in mice.
Topical application generally results in side effects only when used in very high concentrations or in combination with other skin lighteners such as mercury iodine. It can be irritating to the skin in higher concentrations.
Another safer option for skin whitening is arbutin. It comes from the leaves of cranberry, mulberry, bearberry, or blueberry bushes. It is also commonly found in pears. This safe and natural chemical has some ability to inhibit melanin. Medical research backs up the safety and efficacy of arbutin.
Another natural chemical that has some skin lightening properties is kojic acid. This is a by-product of the fermentation process used to make Japanese rice wine, or sake. Research shows that kojic acid can inhibit melanin production. However, it is a very unstable chemical, and cannot be exposed to air or sunlight without losing its efficacy. Some companies use a derivative, kojic dipalminate, as an alternative, but medical studies do not support kojic dipalminate as an effective melanin inhibitor.
In a concentration of 10 to 20 percent, azelaic acid can be used to treat skin discoloration. This acid is found in wheat, barley, or rye, and is sometimes used in acne treatment as well. Like the other agents mentioned, azelaic acid acts to inhibit the skins’ production of melanin.
Glutathione is a peptide molecule commonly found in mammals. It helps prevent skin damage by acting as an antioxidant. When taken in large doses, glutathione acts as a lightener.
It prevents the body from producing melatonin by interfering in the body’s production as well as preventing the free radical damage that trigger the cells to produce melatonin in the first place.
Glutathione also keeps the skin from being damaged by UV radiation and other environmental factors.
There are many reasons why you might want to lighten your skin, such as a birthmark, vitiligo, or other conditions that cause uneven tone. There are many products, both chemical and natural, that can help you. Be sure you fully understand the associated risks before starting use of a new product.