Brighteners prevent irregular pigment (melanin) production, and they can reverse damage caused by melanin overactivity. By using a brightener regularly, melanin breaks down and skin returns to its natural colour. To get maximum benefit from a skin brightener, you must wear an SPF of at least 15. "Patience is key," advises Debbie D'Aquino, vice-president of treatment product development at Clinique. "It can take at least four weeks of twice-daily usage to see a visible change."
The number one cause of dark spots (or hyperpigmentation) is sun damage. The UVA and UVB rays stimulate the skin to product an excess amount of melanin. The darker the skin colour, the more prone it is to hyperpigmentation. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, from taking the birth control pill or from hormone therapy can also trigger hyperpigmentation.
Whiteout Hydroquinone (which contains hydroxide) is the most common bleaching agent in brighteners. It blocks tyrosinase, an enzyme that signals the production of melanin. "Hydroquinone inhibits melanin production, but it can't be tolerated by everyone," cautions Dr. Kucy Pon, a dermatologist with Sunnybrook and Woman's hospital in Toronto. "Apply it only as a spot treatment and don't use it for an extended period of time without a dermatologist's supervision."
Try NeoStrata HQPlus Cream SPF 15 or a prescription formula from your doctor.
If you want to skip hydroquinone, Pon suggests products with natural ingredients, such as Reversa Anti-Spot Lightening Cream. It exfoliates the top layer of the skin and targets spots with rumex, a plant (found on the Canadian Prairies) extract that reduces the appearance of pigmentation. G.M. Collin Luminance Lightening Concentrate employs licorice extract to regulate pigmentation, while Clinique's Active White Lab Solutions range uses yeast and chamomile extracts, which together dissolve spots and lessen their appearance. Babor White Effect System uses a tropical plant called "sleepy morning" to reverse the skin's habit of overproducing melanin.
Brighteners can help fade other colour discolourations if used on a regular basis. Freckles and acne scars may benefit from anti-inflammatory and antioxidant ingredients, such as vitamins, C and E. "Bleaching agents will fade freckles, but they won't erase acne scars that are uneven in texture," explains Pon. Nor will they remove moles; these are part of the skin's genetic makeup. See a dermatologist if you want a mole removed.
Photography courtesy of F. Best