Skin lighteners lessen skin pigmentation by interfering with the body's production of the natural pigment melanin. With the right skin lightener, spots and blotches can disappear.
Other names: Spot lighteners, spot correctors
Skin lighteners are a broad category of products that work to lighten skin tone by inhibiting the formation of melanin, the compound that gives skin its color. Lighteners are used frequently on dark, discolored spots ("melasmas"), so that they match the skin tone better; they're also used by people with vitiligo (a skin disease that causes patchy coloration, or simply those aiming for a lighter skin tone (although lightening large areas of skin is difficult and discouraged by doctors). Lighteners are usually composed of one or more active ingredients in a cream or oil base. Often, they include sunscreen to protect the newly lightened skin from sun damage. Some lighteners even contain alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs, which are also used in chemical peels), which help to speed up the action of the lightener by sloughing off the top layers of darker skin.
How it works: Most skin lightening compounds inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase, which is a key component in the natural production of melanin. With tyrosinase inhibited, the body can't produce as much melanin, and so the skin gradually begins to appear lighter.
Buy: Stronger formulations with hydroquinone must be prescribed by a physician; weaker formulations can be bought at a pharmacy or cosmetics store, for anywhere from $2 to $20 per ounce.
New developments: Hydroquinone's bad rap has recently encouraged manufacturers to find other, safer skin lighteners, such as kojic acid. Nevertheless, hydroquinone remains one of the most popular skin whiteners in many markets.