Skin Whitening



In India last year, consumers purchased more bottles of skin whitening products than bottles of Coca-Cola.  All around the world, people are venturing to try skin brightening cream—some of them to lighten their faces by a few shades, others to treat uneven skin coloring or to remove unsightly coloration of moles or birthmarks. There are even skin lightening products specifically formulated to bleach the genitals.

With all this hype, it is important to do background research before using any of these products. To this end, it may help you to understand the science behind lightening compounds, and to comprehend the potential risks as well as the mechanism of the successes.

Uses for Skin Whitening

In many countries and cultures, the standards of beauty and fashion dictate that fair skin is preferable to the darker and richer tones that are natural to so many people. Women tend to be particularly influenced by fads and fashions, so a demand has been created for various types of skin lightening cream and similar products.  Women turn to these compounds for general reasons of aesthetics and fashion, or for specific purposes like landing a role in acting or advertising.

A whitening cream may be applied indiscriminately to face and hands, or used to target specific problem areas. Wherever pigmentation poses a problem, a skin whitening compound may be employed in reducing the coloration of the skin. Specific problem areas might include:

  • Scars (differently colored tissue left behind after the healing of a wound)
  • Moles (dark brown spots, often raised from the skin)
  • Freckles (very small light brown spots without any texture or raised bumps)
  • Macular stains (light red vascular birthmarks, often located on the face)
  • Hemangiomas (bright red vascular birthmarks, often raised from the skin’s surface)
  • Port-wine stains (purplish-red vascular birthmarks that darken with age, often spreading across a broad swath of skin)
  • Café-au-lait spots (light brown birthmarks, usually smaller than a nickel)
  • Vitiligo (a skin disorder that causes patches of considerably lighter color)
  • age spots” or “liver spots”
  • Healed sores or acne lesions
  • Melasma (brown patches on the face, tends to occur during pregnancy or with hormonal shifts)
  • Ashy dermatosis (a brownish-gray rash that appears as a type of allergic reaction on people with dark complexions)
  • Lichen planus (an inflammatory disorder of the skin, with lesions that heal into discolored spots)

The issues listed above can be treated skin whitening applications in order to even out the coloration difference between affected areas and the rest of the skin. In most cases, the treatment should be applied to the affected area, which is darker than the rest of the complexion. The exception is with vitiligo, where the affected patches are lighter, and the unaffected skin can be lightened to match.

Melanin and Skin Types

The pigment, or coloring agent, found in skin is called melanin. Melanin can create either black or brown coloring in the skin and hair. The more melanin is concentrated in a particular area, the darker the color will be. People’s natural complexions result from the amount of melanin each person’s DNA is programmed to produce, so a Caucasian person has much less melanin in their skin than a person of African descent.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight is one of the triggers that can boost melanin production. This is why a person “tans” with exposure to sunlight, because the body’s increase in melanin production makes the skin a darker brown.  The underlying genetic skin type does not change during a person’s lifetime, even if the specific shade of skin might vary through the tanning process.

The underlying genetic skin types of individuals are divided into six Types, which are measured by the Fitzpatrick Scale. Type I on the Fitzpatrick scale is the fairest skin possible for a non-albino. People who are categorized as Type I have exceedingly fair skin that generally burns instead of tanning. They will most often have blue eyes, red or blond hair, and freckles. At the other end of the scale, Type VI skin encompasses people with African ancestry, with black hair and brown eyes.

Skin Whitening Agents

Different whitening agents are recommended for different skin types and different skin disorders. The different agents fit in several categories, each affecting the skin’s coloration by a different mechanism:

  • Tyrosinase inhibitors: Tyrosinase is an enzyme that catalyzes critical steps in the body’s manufacture of melanin. Tyrosinase inhibitors (which include polyphenols, benzaldehyde, benzoate, gallic acid, lipids, and steroids) prevent the enzyme from doing its job, thereby reducing the production of melanin.
  • Melanomal transfer inhibitors: Melanomal transfer involves moving tyrosinase to the cells where it is needed for creating melanin. Interrupting this movement is another way to prevent the enzyme from facilitating melanin production.
  • Antioxidants: When a person’s skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight), the UV rays cause cellular “messengers” to initiate increased production of melanin. Antioxidants (including Vitamin C and Vitamin E) essentially intercept these messengers, counteracting the effect of sunlight on melanin levels.  Sunscreens accomplish the same result by blocking UV rays from the skin.
  • Desquamators: The word “desquamator” can be loosely translated to mean “removing skin.” Chemical peels (including salicylic acid, linoleic acid, and retinoids) get rid of skin cells with their melatonin build-up, clearing the way for less pigmented cells to take their place.

Your doctor or dermatologist can help you identify which of these skin whitening mechanisms are the most likely to be useful in your individual case.

The Balance of Risk and Benefit

Your dermatologist can also assist you in identifying the potential risks of skin whitening agents. Even if you choose a treatment that doesn’t require a prescription, you would do well to consult your doctor as part of your decision-making process.

The possible risks and side effects vary in severity, and a doctor familiar with your own health history can assess what side effects you might be likely to encounter. Used judiciously, skin whitening agents can lighten and brighten your skin without causing health problems.



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