Question: Because I have dark spots on my face and chest, I bought a cream with licorice root that promised to “brighten” my skin. Then I saw another product with hydroquinone that claimed to “lighten” the skin. Is there a difference in the promise? Is one better than the other?
Answer: Brown splotches and spots can appear on both light and darker skin tones. There are three different types that are triggered by different situations:
1. Melasma is a brownish discoloration that occurs with pregnancy or after use of birth control pills.
2. Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) are dark areas or spots that are provoked by injury to the skin like a bug bite, scratch, acne, or exzema.
3. Sun Damage from unprotected or prolonged exposure to UV rays is the primary cause of irregular pigmentation in lighter skin tones. In fact the sun can make melasma eve worse.
Skin Brightening vs Skin Lightening
Legal definitions are supposed to help us navigate skin care products, but competing words often just add to consumer confusion. The FDA allows only hydroquinone to claim that it can lighten the skin. This widely used ingredient acts by preventing new melanin production so overtime the darkened cells naturally turnover and are replaced by healthy unpigmented cells. Because it is regulated by the FDA, products with hydroquinone are required to list their concentrations on the label. Over the counter skin lighteners have between 1-4% hydroquinone, while prescription treatment products can have higher levels.
However there are a number of ingredients like soy and licorice root that have been shown to be able to improve skin clarity. Soy and niacinomide can prevent melanin formation while others like Kojic Acid can break down existing melanin. Dozens of good quality studies have shown many of these ingredients to be effective, but the FDA will only allow them to say they are skin brighteners, not skin lighteners. So while research has shown these ingredients to work, its hard to tell which product to buy because the manufacturer is not required to list the concentration of these other melanin fighters on the label.
My personal recommendation is to look for combination products that use agents that both inhibit and breakdown melanin. And whatever treatment product you select, make certain to use a strong mineral sun screen to prevent further UV damage. My long time favorite is Skinceuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense and my latest find is Cotz Face available at Ulta stores and online at Dermstore.com.
Remember even the words most effctive skin lightener/skin brightener ( even uber expensive laser treatments) can’t help skin that is unprotected from UV rays.