Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Rithi Choudhury (Journalist)  on 28th Oct 2020

Are Skin Lightening Products Safe? - All About Skin Brightening Ingredients

Are Skin Lightening Products Safe?

Disclaimer: It is not about fairness but about getting clear, even healthy skin!

When the skin is clear and even-toned, it naturally looks radiant and brighter. We believe all beauty comes in all colors, but healthy skin comes without blemishes.

There are tons of products available today in the market specifically meant for skin lightening.

But how safe or effective are they? Are they even safe at all?

When it comes to addressing your skin lightening concern, which one ingredient or combination of ingredients should you pick?


Get ready with a cup of green tea/coffee because you are in for a very science-oriented beauty Ted Talk. 

How Do Skin Lightening Creams and Serums Work? 

Our skin consists of three layers- epidermis (topmost protective layer), dermis (the mid-layer that has hair follicles and sweat glands), and hypodermis (the innermost layer made of fat and connective tissue).

Scars appear when the dermis is damaged (from wound/injury/acne). Our body forms new collagen fiber to repair the damaged skin, resulting in a different texture and quality tissue than the surrounding tissue.

On the other hand, dark spots and hyperpigmentation occur when the skin produces excess melanin, usually due to photodamage, hormonal imbalances, age, or skin injury.

The body’s natural defense mechanism accelerates the production of a lot of melanin, making the area darker.

Skin lightening creams and serums are formulated with active ingredients that exfoliate the epidermis and penetrate the dermis where scars often originate.

The active ingredients in skin lightening creams or serums inhibit melanin production, help even out the skin tone, gently exfoliate, and help achieve a relatively lighter tone.

It is vital to choose a formulation where the molecules can easily penetrate the skin surface to target the blemish at its roots to effectively fade them out.

Many of these active ingredients (like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Kojic Acid, etc.) also act as antioxidants to prevent further damage. 

What formulation should you choose - creams or serums?

The most significant difference between a serum and a cream or lotion is their formulation.

Serums are made up of smaller molecules, which allows the formula to penetrate the skin deeper and quicker than other products. Typically they are created with a higher concentration of ingredients that are super-efficient. They often leave out occlusive ingredients such as mineral oil or petrolatum.

A lot of serums are water-based, eliminating oils.

Dr. Carlos A. Charles, Founder and Medical Director of Derma di Colore in Chelsea, Says

By leaving out many of the heavier ingredients found in traditional moisturizers, face serums contain a much higher proportional concentration of active ingredients.

While serums are great for people with oily skin, they have a weightless, non-greasy formula and don't leave behind a sticky residue. Still, serums are not for all skin types.

Dr. Jessica Wu, the California based dermatologist from Santa Monica, says 

The liquid or gel-like texture of a serum can be a poor match for people with chronic skin conditions like eczema or rosacea, which weaken the skin barrier. For these people, serums may penetrate too quickly and irritate. 

Mature or dry skin needs the hydration that a rich day or night cream provides, and serum isn’t sufficient. Instead, serums can be an excellent add-on for dry skin layered under a hydrating moisturizer.  

Minimalist’s Expert Advice:

People with dry skin alternatively can apply 2 % hyaluronic acid before applying active serum and then follow it up with an excellent non-comedogenic moisturizer rather than active ingredients in a less effective cream base. 

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Popular skin lightening ingredient and which ones are right for you 

1. Vitamin C 

Vitamin C is perhaps the most well-known and loved ingredient in the list because of its ability to multitask as a skin brightener and repair it, thanks to its antioxidant properties.

Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., explains,  

Vitamin C is perhaps the most potent topical antioxidant we have

It blocks tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for the production of melanin that results in pigmentation.

In its pure form, Vitamin C is extremely unstable in water and also oxidizes quickly. Therefore most formulations use Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP) or Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, a water-soluble, stable, and less irritating derivative of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is usually suitable for all skin types, but the concentration is the key to an ingredient's effectiveness.

Start with a lower concentration of around 10% and then move to a higher concentration of 15-20% to show optimum results in fading dark spots and evening out the skin tone.

Zeichner also recommends going with a serum formulation as "they keep that ingredient stable and enhance penetration through the outer skin layer.” 

2. AHAs

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are skin-friendly acids that help lighten the skin and are also potent anti-aging ingredients. The most promising among them are: 

Glycolic acid -

Glycolic Acid is a gentle chemical exfoliant. It sloughs off dead skin cells to reveal new, younger, and brighter cells.

Dr. Heather Rogers, M.D., a dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Seattle, says 

Glycolic acid is very safe and effective at lightening brown spots through gentle chemical exfoliation.

Its smaller molecular size puts it at an advantage to penetrate deeper into the skin and break the bonds between dead skin cells.

Since it exfoliates the top layer of the skin, it may cause some stinging feeling and pinkness for the first few times, but these effects usually subside with repeated use as the skin gets used to the product.

Glycolic acid is best for normal to oily/combination skin.

People with highly sensitive skin and dry skin may experience more side effects like skin irritation and redness.

Since it is a powerful exfoliant on its own, it should not be used with other potent retinoids. You can use them at alternate times. 

Lactic acid 

Lactic acid is the milder sister to Glycolic acid and, in fact, the mildest of AHAs. Its hydrating properties make it an excellent option for dry and sensitive skin.

It works by exfoliating the top layer of the skin and penetrating the breakdown of dead skin cells, oil, and grime clogging the pores. 

Emma Hobson, Education Manager for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute. Says

It’s non-friction type exfoliant which works by breaking down and dissolving the structure of dead skin cells without causing sensitivity

Lactic acid inhibits the production of melanin, like several skin lightening ingredients in this list. It is a great option to treat dark spots, uneven patches, suntan, and acne scars and get a smooth texture and diminish wrinkles and fine lines

Did you know?

Lactic acid is naturally present in curd and sour milk. From ancient times these are used to make masks at home. 

3. Retinoids 

Retinoids are an absolute holy grail for acne-prone skin and one of those few ingredients on the market that have proven to work effectively in reversing signs of aging.

Retinoid is the umbrella term for the vast family of chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A that increases the cell turnover ratio, stimulates collagen production, fades hyperpigmentation, brightens the skin, and softens wrinkles and fine lines.

Most OTC retinoids usually contain a lower concentration of retinol, retinyl esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), adapalene, which are gentler and are safer for dry and sensitive skin.

In contrast, the more potent prescription retinoids contain retinoic acid or tretinoin, which are prescribed for targeting wrinkles and acne (depending on the concentration) in healthy and mature skin

According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Andrea Suarez, M.D., from Denver , Better known as Dr. Dray, her pseudonym in the YouTube she runs. 

Typical side effects include redness, peeling, and dryness, which is why it is crucial to apply retinoids over a moisturizer that forms a protective barrier over the skin,

Minimalist unique formulation:

We have found a potent Retinoid derivative that is effective and does not irritate at the same time. 

4. Niacinamide 

Niacinamide is a vitamin B3 derivative that is a gentler alternative to retinoids to lighten acne scars, blemishes, and wrinkles.

Niacinamide is pretty much suited to all skin types. Apart from skin lightening, its anti-inflammatory properties make it effective for treating skin inflammation, controlling sebum, and boosting collagen production.

It also protects and repairs cells from environmental damage. Vitamin B3 is a precursor to the molecules responsible for carrying out the chemical reactions which the skin cells need to grow, repair damage, and function normally.

Paula Begoun, the founder of skincare line Paula’s Choice, says,

Topically, niacinamide has so many ways to help the skin, it’s mind-boggling.

Niacinamide and zinc duo reduces acne scars and inflammation related to acne. 

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5. Kojic Acid 

Kojic Acid is a chemical compound obtained as a metabolic by-product from various fungi, including mushrooms, fermented foods like soya sauce, and rice wine.

It has gained popularity as a skin lightening ingredient because of its milder nature compared to more potent ingredients like Hydroquinone, making it suitable for sensitive skin.

Kojic Acid lightens hyperpigmentation by suppressing the formation of tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for the production of melanin.

Apart from its skin lightening ability, it is also famous for its role as an antioxidant.

“It can help in scavenging free radicals, although as I have always said with all antioxidants applied to the skin, their stability is always questionable,” says Dr. Dray (Andrea Suarez).

Raw Kojic Acid is extremely unstable. Most formulations use a kojic acid ester - kojic dipalmitate that has been clinically proven to be one of the best antioxidants that help protect from UV damage and neutralize free radicals.

A lower concentration of 2% or less is recommended to avoid side effects like contact dermatitis or skin irritation. Studies have also shown Kojic Acid to be more effective than Hydroquinone in treating hyperpigmentation

6. Azelaic Acid

Azelaic Acid is obtained from grains such as rye, wheat, barley, etc. According to NYC-based dermatologist Francesca Fuco, M.D., it is mainly an excellent option for sensitive skin to treat acne and resulting hyperpigmentation because it is suited to all skin types of its mild nature.

According to research, Azelaic acid is as effective as benzoyl peroxide in treating acne, and it is much milder than AHA and BHA.

Azelaic acid exfoliates the skin and increases cell turnover ratio to heal inflammation quickly.

It also inhibits the synthesis of melanin responsible for the dark patches, scars, and spots - often resulting from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Azelaic acid is effective in treating active acne inflammation and rosacea.

It is also one of the few ingredients that can be paired with other ingredients like retinol, AHA, and BHA without causing adverse reactions. 

7. Arbutin 

Arbutin is the naturally occurring alternative to Hydroquinone, a widely used skin lightening ingredient. Arbutin is derived from bearberry, mulberry, blueberry, cranberry, wheat, and some pears.

Most formulations use Arbutin in its stable form - Alpha Arbutin, a glycosylated hydroquinone, a pure water-soluble, biosynthetic active ingredient.

The hydroquinone group allows Arbutin to act as an inhibitor of tyrosinase, resulting in brighter, blemish-free skin.

Arbutin is suited to all skin types and works on all skin tones to mildly bleach pigmentation. Arbutin is often paired with Vitamin C to maximize its efficacy.

Studies have shown that arbutin is less effective than kojic acid when treating hyperpigmentation, but it is milder and less irritating. 

8. Hydroquinone  

Hydroquinone is probably the most controversial, perhaps even least popular ingredient in this list.

Although there are not many studies to support, it is harmful to human skin. Some countries like Europe and Australia have banned it based on some undergoing research. FDA, the US has listed it under safe ingredients for cosmetics or skincare products.

It is helpful in the treatment of hyperpigmentation, melasma, age spots, etc. It bleaches the skin by decreasing the number of melanocytes (melanin-producing cells).

But unlike the other ingredients mentioned in this list, it does not help with active inflammation or provide other significant benefits.

People with normal or oily skin will benefit more from Hydroquinone than dry and sensitive skin, which may cause further dryness and irritation.

Hydroquinone works best on fairer skin tones as its bleaching property is quite potent, and those with dark skin may experience a ghostly whitening effect. 

Caution:

The prolonged use of Hydroquinone is associated with a rare condition of the skin (blue pigmentation). So, it is not recommended to use Hydroquinone for more than five months in a row. 

The Bottom Line 

These ingredients work by exfoliating dead cells or inhibiting melanin production (except hydroquinone, which works by bleaching skin) to help lighten dark spots. So, they are safe to be used as daily serums.

Since reduced melanin production leaves the skin susceptible to sun damage; therefore, it is vital to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, be it rain or shine.

It is also advised to consult a dermatologist before incorporating a skincare ingredient, especially for people with sensitive skin or existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.

Skin lightening activities which work by promoting cell turnover may cause purging. While these effects disappear in 3-4 weeks after the skin gets used to the ingredient/s, one should discontinue it if side effects persist and terminate use.