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The Science of Skin Care: Skin Brightening

Don't let the sun damage your skin.
Don’t let the sun damage your skin.

Summer fun in the sun can bring out a beautiful bronze glow, but UV radiation exposure, even exposure under the protection of a broad spectrum sunscreen, can result in uneven coloration. UV exposure doesn’t just cause sunburns and tans; it can also bring about freckles and age spots. A number of products are available to help even out skin tone, but they aren’t all safe.

Understanding the Mechanisms of Depigmentation

Melanin is a natural pigment, the production of which is stimulated by UVB exposure. Melanin helps naturally protect against UV radiation penetration. Hyperpigmentation—an increased production of melanin—results in tans, freckles and age spots. There are two conditions that may result in hyperpigmentation:

  1. An increase in the number of cells (melanocytes) that produce melanosomes, the organelles that convert the amino acid tyrosine into melanin, or
  2. An increase in the number of melanosomes.

Hyperpigmentation may be arrested, possibly reversed by reducing the number of melanocytes and/or melanosomes. However, the mechanisms are considered unsafe. Bleaching melanin or inhibiting its formation may also have toxic effects.

There are generally only two safe mechanisms to bring about depigmentation:

  1. Limiting melanin production by interfering with the chemical process of converting tyrosine to melanin, or
  2. Limiting the visible effects of melanin by interfering with the transfer of melanosomes to keratinocytes (i.e. the movement of pigment-carrying organelles to the skin cells where pigmentation becomes visible)

Hydroquinone: Effective but Unsafe

Hydroquinone is a common ingredient in skin brightening products whose effectiveness is well documented. Although it is not entirely clear how hydroquinone works to lighten skin, it may inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the chemical process that converts tyrosine to melanin. While inhibiting tyrosinase falls under one of the safe skin brightening mechanisms, hydroquinone is still a highly suspect ingredient.

Hydroquinone is listed in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database as a carcinogenic substance. Other consumer watchdog organizations also recognize the link between hydroquinone application and increased cancer risk, which is why the European Union has banned the use of it completely. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has significantly restricted the use of hydroquinone in cosmetic products, but it is still approved for over-the-counter sale in concentrations of 2% or less.

So while hydroquinone may activate a safe mechanism for effective skin lightening, the chemical itself is not safe for the frequent application necessary for skin brightening.

Safe Depigmentation Ingredients

There are a number of other natural, safe and effective ingredients for skin brightening, including:

  • Kojic Dipalmitate
  • Niacinamide
  • Glutathione
  • Ferulic Acid
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Phytic Acid
  • Emblica Fruit Extract

These ingredients are derived from plants, and many also have antioxidant properties. These ingredients are all active ingredients in our SB-7 Skin Brightener.

Skin brighteners work best when they can penetrate deeply—below the layer of keratinocytes to the melanin-producing cells. For best results, cleanse and exfoliate before applying a skin brightener.

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