Hydroquinone is the most commonly used prescription drug for correcting moderate hyperpigmentation (uneven skin tone and brown patches on the skin). However, some pigment problems may also be addressed with other substances. These formulas are generally available over the counter. Many patients try these skin lightening ingredients prior to seeing a dermatologist. Or a dermatologist may recommend one of many alternative products for mild hyperpigmentation to minimize the potential for skin irritation. This doesn’t mean all OTC products are gentler than hydroquinone. The sensitivity of your skin generally dictates how you will respond to skin lighteners.
A Few Popular Non-Hydroquinone Agents
The biological process that results in melanin production involves many chemical reactions. The active ingredients in skin lightening creams work by interfering with or inhibiting one of these reactions or by killing melanocytes. You can see a great overview of how the melanin cycle works here.
Niacinamide – This B vitamin compound is sometimes recommended for acne as well as skin tone improvement. It’s usually not used as a skin lightening agent all by itself, but is an additive in many skin lightening formulas.
Kojic acid – This acid is derived from a fungus as a byproduct of grain fermentation. It inhibits melanin production but has a reputation in some countries for being too irritating for regular use.
Soy – You’ve heard of taking a milk bath to get whiter skin. That’s not likely to work. But there’s some evidence that washing your face with unpasteurized soy milk every day for 3 months can even out your skin tone. This ingredient inhibits enzymes that are involved in the melanin production process.
Arbutin – This plant extract derived from fruits like mulberry and bearberry is often discussed as an alternative to hydroquinone. Actually, it is simply a milder, naturally occurring variant of synthetic hydroquinone and works in much the same way.
Options Abound for Lightening and Brightening
Many other natural ingredients from licorice to azelaic acid are available in various combinations over the counter for skin lightening. Proprietary products such as Lumixyl (oligopeptide) and Melaplex are designed for skin “brightening” but provide a measure of lightening as well since melanin buildup in dead layers of skin cells is a common cause of dullness.