In this article:
- Skin-lightening procedures are performed to subdue the effect of hyperpigmentation. They reduce the amount of melanin in your skin to lighten the dark patches.
- Dark patches on the skin can result from sun exposure, environmental pollution, hormonal influences, chemicals present in cosmetic products, or genetic defects.
- Several home remedies, and medical treatments, are available for skin lightening.
- Diet modification can also help in skin lightening.
- Skin lightening, brightening, and whitening are different concepts.
What Is Skin Lightening?
Skin lightening is a cosmetic technique used to obtain an even skin tone. It works by reducing or controlling the amount of melanin in your skin.
An uneven skin tone may be a consequence of hyperpigmentation – which is the appearance of dark patches on your skin. The dark areas of skin may be caused by age spots, freckles, or melasma. People use skin-lightening techniques to fade out these imperfections.
What Determines Skin Color?
Melanin is the chief factor that determines an individual’s skin color. It is a biological pigment present inside the skin.
Melanocytes are specialized cells in the epidermis (top layer of skin) that are responsible for melanin synthesis. Melanosomes are specialized structures inside the cells that store melanin.
Melanin is the body’s natural sunscreen. It is responsible for protecting the skin against ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure.
Excessive exposure to UV rays can cause skin cancer. Melanin absorbs the UV rays and acts as a natural barrier against them.
The amount of melanin in the skin is directly proportional to the skin tone. A darker individual has more melanin than a person with a lighter skin tone. Therefore, dark-skinned individuals are better protected against UV rays.
There are also two types of melanin: pheomelanin and eumelanin. Pheomelanin is red to yellow in color and present in people with light complexions or red hair. Eumelanin is dark brown to black and present in people with dark complexions and those who tan easily.
A yellowish tinge in the skin can be the result of pigmentation by carotene.
What Causes an Uneven Skin Tone?
Hyperpigmentation, or the appearance of dark patches on the skin, resulting in an uneven skin tone is common. These patches can occur due to any of the following reasons:
1. Sun Exposure: Prolonged exposure to the sun or UV radiation is harmful. The UV rays can damage the cells in the epidermal layer of the skin. To prevent this damage, the production of melanin is increased.
The deposition of melanin in the skin may result in the formation of dark patches, known as age spots. People with a dark skin tone have more chances of developing these sunspots on their face, hands, or other body parts.
This hyperpigmentation is formed in an attempt to shield against sunburn and is a sign of sun damage.
2. Hormones: Melasma (also known as chloasma) is a form of patchy hyperpigmentation that is commonly seen in women.
Some females may experience an increased melanin production on exposure to sunlight. The hyperpigmentation is most commonly distributed symmetrically along the cheeks, upper forehead, and upper lip.
This overproduction of melanin is influenced by the action of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Melasma is common in pregnant women and women taking hormonal birth control as it is triggered by hormonal changes.
3. Age: The development of dark patches on the skin may be associated with age. Hyperpigmentation is common in individuals above 40 years of age.
As you get older, the melanocytes increase in size rather than an increase in number. Also, in certain areas the skin appears paler and thinner with age.
This causes more contrast with the darker spots in the sun-exposed areas caused by years of cumulative sun exposure.
4. Acne: The discoloration caused by acne is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). The inflammation caused by acne triggers the overproduction of melanin and causes dark spots. This is more prominent in people with a darker skin tone.
5. Chemical-laden cosmetic products: Synthetic cosmetics are loaded with chemicals to improve their efficiency. The chemicals used can be harmful to the skin and cause damage in the form of acne or premature aging.
The irritant effect of these chemicals increases the incidence of hyperpigmentation.
6. Environmental pollution: Pollutants in the air can activate intracellular receptors and trigger oxidative stress. These actions cause skin damage and promote skin aging through the formation of wrinkles and dark spots. (1)
7. Genes: Genetic makeup highly influences the skin pigmentation of an individual. Genes determine the distribution and size of melanosomes in the skin.
The production of melanin is regulated by the enzyme tyrosinase. Therefore, the action of tyrosinase has an impact on the color of the eyes, hair, and skin.
8. Diseases: Certain nutrient deficiencies, autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal problems, or metabolic disorders may cause hyperpigmentation.
9. Medication: Hyperpigmentation induced by drugs constitutes 10-20% of all incidences of acquired hyperpigmentation. Medications that may cause hyperpigmentation as a side effect include:
- Hormonal birth control
- Doxycycline and minocycline antibiotics
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Cytotoxic drugs or chemotherapy drugs
- Antimalarial drugs
- Antipsychotic drugs
Several methods are available to treat hyperpigmentation. The procedures work by decreasing the melanin production rate, or its concentration in your skin. The techniques used for skin lightening include:
1. Skin-lightening Creams
To reduce the dark spots caused by acne or age spots, skin-lightening creams can be used. These creams can be prescribed by a doctor.
The gold standard ingredient in skin-lightening creams is hydroquinone. This is prescribed in a concentration ranging from 4%-8%, while 2% can be found in over-the-counter products.
Other ingredients that may be present in skin lightening creams include kojic acid, arbutin, vitamin C, azelaic acid, glycolic acid, niacinamide, retinol, topical steroids, and tranexamic acid.
2. Chemical Peel
The use of chemicals such as alpha hydroxyl acids (AHA), trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and retinol can help in skin rejuvenation. The application of these chemicals to your skin helps in exfoliation and stimulates the growth of new cells.
Wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and blemishes can be treated with the help of a chemical peel.
3. Nd:YAG Laser
This laser uses two wavelengths of high energy light that preferentially target pigment in the skin. The heat caused by the laser damages the cells that contain the pigment resulting in lightening as the skin heals.
Nd:YAG laser is a non-ablative laser that does not disrupt the skin barrier. This laser can be used to treat freckles, sun spots, birthmarks, tattoos, and visible veins. It can also be used for hair removal.
4. Intense Pulsed Light Therapy (IPL)
Similar to laser treatment, IPL involves scattering high-energy light on your skin. However, the pulsed light used in IPL does not harm the skin. It penetrates past the epidermis, into the dermis. Melanin pigments selectively absorb the light.
The generated heat destroys excessive pigment. IPL can be used to treat brown spots, freckles, and pink tones on the skin.
5. Laser Resurfacing
Lasers that emit light rays of high energy can be used to remove the upper damaged layers of the skin and increase collagen production. Laser resurfacing can be used to treat hyperpigmentation, acne scars, and wrinkles.
The most commonly used resurfacing lasers are:
- Carbon-dioxide (CO2)
The outer layer of the skin (stratum corneum) can be removed using an abrasive wand or a spray of crystals. This exfoliation process polishes the skin and helps in attaining an even skin tone by softening acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles.
Note: Consult your doctor before undergoing any of these procedures. Certain types of hyperpigmentation respond better to some treatments. Laser must be cautiously used or avoided in some forms of hyperpigmentation, such as melasma. These skin-lightening techniques can be time-consuming, costly, and they do not guarantee the best results. Sometimes, a combination of treatments is needed to get the desired result, and maintenance treatments are usually necessary. Thus, it is important to make a well-informed decision.
Risks with Skin Lightening
Skin lightening can produce after-effects that include:
- Inflammation and redness
- Burning sensation
- Peeling skin
The techniques used for skin lightening can sometimes cause serious complications such as:
- Skin infection
- Worsening of the skin pigmentation
- Loss of pigmentation
Preventive Self-Care Tips
You can adopt the following measures to prevent the formation of spots on your skin:
- Avoid sun exposure for long durations. Seek shade whenever possible.
- Use sunscreen daily. It is necessary to apply a sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater and reapply every 2 hours.
- Cover your skin with protective clothing such as hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves.
- Follow a skin care routine.
- Clean your skin regularly and avoid aggressive scrubbing.
- Avoid smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol.
Home Remedies to Naturally Lighten Skin
If you want to achieve healthy skin with even skin tone the natural way, here are some remedies that you can try at home.
Note: It is recommended to perform a patch test to determine whether you are allergic to any of these ingredients. These natural ingredients can help in skin lightening, but the process is gradual. It is also important to maintain a healthy diet along with proper skincare routine. Few studies have been conducted on the mentioned ingredients, leaving room for better studies that demonstrate their efficacy. It is recommended to visit a dermatologist if these treatments fail to work, or worsen your problems.
1. Yogurt and Gram Flour
Using yogurt as a home-remedy for skin rejuvenation is a common practice. Both, external application, and the consumption of yogurt can help in achieving a soft and radiant skin.
Being a milk product, yogurt is full of nutrients that are beneficial to the skin. The lactic acid present in yogurt acts as a natural bleaching agent. Gram flour can help improve the quality of your skin by providing nutrition. It can also be used to obtain a lighter complexion.
A mixture of gram flour and yogurt can help moisturize your skin and remove excess oil.
- Mix yogurt and gram flour and apply the mixture to your skin.
- Let it dry for 30 minutes.
- Massage your skin and wash it off with water.
- To get rid of a suntan, use this remedy daily for 2-3 weeks.
Due to its nutritive properties, papaya is widely used for skincare. It provides a healthy glow to the skin and brightens the complexion. It also acts as a natural bleaching agent.
- Chop and mash a banana and papaya together.
- Add honey to the mashed fruits.
- Mix well and apply the paste to the skin.
- Leave it on for 15-20 minutes, and then rinse if off with warm water and pat your skin dry.
Oranges are highly beneficial to the skin as they are rich sources of vitamin C. Oranges can help lighten the skin by acting as a lightening agent.
Also, daily consumption of freshly squeezed orange juice can revitalize the skin, leaving it soft and smooth. (2)
- Apply orange juice to your skin for an even skin tone. You may also add orange juice to your diet to extract its benefits.
Dark spots on the skin can result from dryness. Honey can hydrate the skin to help in attaining an even skin tone. Being an anti-bacterial agent, honey prevents the development of acne and helps in fading existing acne scars and age spots.
Royal jelly, a honey bee secretion, can also be used to treat hyperpigmentation. One study found that water-soluble royal jelly obtained from South Korea was a potential candidate to treat skin hyperpigmentation. (3)
- Directly apply honey to the dark spots with the help of a q-tip.
Being a citrus fruit, lemon affects the skin in a manner similar to oranges. Its high citric acid content bleaches the skin, while vitamin C promotes the proliferation of new skin cells. Lemons are rich in antioxidants that help improve the skin complexion. (4)
- Dilute lemon juice with water and apply it to the skin. Rinse it with tepid water after 10 minutes.
Note: Always do a patch test before applying lemon juice to your skin. The acids present in lemon juice can cause a stinging sensation on coming in contact with wounds. Avoid usage if open wounds are present.
6. Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera can be used as a skin-lightening agent due to its cooling and anti-inflammatory effects. The application of aloe vera promotes cell division and repair of damaged tissue. This can help in the treatment of hyperpigmentation.
Also, the aggregation of melanin in the melanophores leads to skin lightening. Aloin, an active ingredien in aloe vera, promotes melanin aggregation. One study demonstrated that aloe vera can be used as a nontoxic melanolytic agent in a dose-dependent manner to treat hyperpigmentation. (5)
- Apply aloe vera gel to your face.
- Leave it for 15-20 minutes and rinse with tepid water.
Turmeric inhibits the production of melanin and gives the skin an even complexion. It also helps in maintaining healthy skin as it has antioxidant and antiseptic properties.
Curcumin is a major compound found in turmeric. A review paper published in 2016 highlighted the use of turmeric or curcumin-containing products and supplements for improving skin health. The review included both orally and topically used products. (6)
- Combine turmeric powder and yogurt to make a paste. Apply the paste to your skin.
Note: Some varieties of turmeric powder can leave a yellowish stain on your skin. This will fade away after cleansing.
Extracts of cucumber are highly useful for skincare. Being a good source of antioxidants and vitamins A and C, cucumber extracts can help in skin hydration. They also help to alleviate irritation and inflammation. Additionally, cucumber extracts inhibit melanin synthesis and sebum secretion. (7)
Cucumber can help lighten the skin by making it firm and supple. This is due to the collagen-binding action of cucumber. Cucumber also helps in cooling the skin, and it can be used on all skin types.
- Grate a cucumber and apply the juice to your skin.
Oats (Avena sativa) have been used for the treatment of various skin problems. They are applied topically to get rid of rashes, dryness, and eczema. Studies have been conducted to understand the mechanism by which colloidal oatmeal strengthens the skin barrier. (9)
Oats contain flavonoids that can absorb UV-A (320-370nm). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of colloidal oatmeal as a skin protectant. This information is provided in the Over-the-Counter Final Monograph for Skin Protectant Drug Products, issued in June 2003. (10)
Oatmeal promotes skin regeneration by exfoliating the skin. This helps lighten the skin and provide softness to the skin.
- Take some cooked oatmeal once it cools down and apply it to your face as a mask. Wash it off after 10-15 minutes once it dries up.
These remedies stated above can only bear results in due course of time. Also, there is no “one size fits all” remedy. It is best to visit your dermatologist to assess the exact cause of uneven skin tone and then proceed ahead with the remedies and treatment.
What is the difference between skin lightening, brightening, and whitening?
Skin lightening helps you achieve an even skin tone by improving dark patches.
Skin brightening works by exfoliating the skin, thus giving it a fresher appearance.
Skin whitening helps in changing your skin tone to a lighter shade. It involves the use of chemicals which may be harmful to your health.
Can diet help in skin lightening?
The general health of the skin depends on the nutrition that the body receives. To achieve healthy and beautiful skin, it is important to follow a balanced diet. This can be accompanied by the use of nutrient supplements and cosmetics. (8)
Do glutathione injections promote skin lightening?
The antioxidant and anti-melanogenic (preventing the production of melanin) properties of glutathione make it a popular ‘systemic skin-lightening molecule’, commonly injected intravenously.
The administration of glutathione for skin lightening, has been tried via different modes. While topical and oral use of glutathione is safe, its long-term efficacy has not been proved. More studies need to be performed to confirm the role of glutathione. (11)
Can chemotherapy change skin color?
The association of chemotherapy or immunotherapy with changes in skin pigmentation is not common. In rare cases, the pigmentation on the skin, nails and hair may darken or lighten. The hyperpigmentation can be long-lasting.
Does regular yoga promote healthy and light skin?
Yoga helps in striking a balance between your physical, emotional and mental health. Practicing yoga daily helps improve your skin health and gives it an inner glow. This is due to the improvement in digestion and blood circulation that yoga provides.
Yoga also helps in the removal of toxins. Additionally, several yoga poses which may help in firming the skin, thus reducing the formation of wrinkles and fine lines.
Skin lightening helps you achieve an even skin tone by getting rid of dark spots or discoloration. Simple home remedies and skin care products can be used for skin lightening. If necessary, you can undergo medical procedures for skin lightening on consultation with your doctor.