What Is Skin Lightening And How It Works?

About the Skin Lightening Process

Skin lightening, which is also commonly referred to as skin bleaching or whitening, is the process of using surgical, natural or chemical-based treatments to lower the amount of melanin in the skin which results in less pigmentation or whiter skin. This rather unique skin care process was first popularized by communities in Asia but has since spread and become a very mainstream procedure.

While skin lightening was originally intended for individuals with pre-existing skin conditions such as melasma, vitiligo, and other similar abnormal skin pigmentation diseases it has also become a popular method of getting rid of more common, less serious cosmetic blemishes such as dark spots, acne scars, dark underarms, birthmarks, and more.

The most common skin lightening treatment consists of using a topical agent such as a skin lightening cream, cc cream, or other form of lotion. There are, however, other treatment options such as pills, home remedies, laser procedures, and an array of other solutions.

Common Skin Lightening Agents

There are countless chemicals and natural ingredients that are believed to slow or stop the production of melanin which causes skin discolorations but only a handful are used in nearly every product created for the skin lightening process. Below you’ll find a list of these chemicals and then a brief summary of the most used ones.

The most common skin lightening agents are:

  • Hydroquinone
  • Arbutin
  • Kojic Acid
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Vitamin C
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids


Hydroquinone is by far the most prevalent agent used in today’s most popular skin lighteners. In most cases it is found in various creams or other topical solutions, usually in small doses of 2% to 4%. It works well and quickly by nearly completely stopping the production of melanin in the skin. This chemical is known to work best against skin conditions such as melasma and hyperpigmentation.

Hydroquinone, while widely used and effective, isn’t the safest ingredient to use on your skin, though. Several countries, including France, have banned the use of the substance because it is believed to be linked to causing certain strains of cancer in lab rats. It hasn’t been proven 100% dangerous but still some concern lies in its use. Many countries, including the United States, still use it in various skin care products.

There are skin lighteners that do not use Hydroquinone, however, so it is possible to find a treatment option that doesn’t have a risk of causing cancer or other serious side effects. One of the most popular products that is hydroquinone-free is Epibright, an award-winning, best selling skin lightening cream.


Arbutin is somewhat similar to hydroquinone is known to be much safer and even more effective for lightening skin. It is obtained from natural plant extracts such as bearberry, blueberry shrubs, cranberry, and even mulberry plants. It has been proven in multiple case studies that using different forms of arbutin is very effective for reducing darkened skin and is far safer than most other ingredients found in some lighteners.

The most common arbutin forms are:

  • Alpha Arbutin
  • Beta Arbutin
  • Deoxy Arbutin

Each of these chemicals is naturally extracted from one of the plants mentioned above.

Kojic Acid

Kojic Acid is known to be very effective for reducing melanin in the skin but it has a very big flaw. When this chemical is exposed to the outside air or hit with direct sunlight it loses the vast majority of its effectiveness. Products containing kojic acid typically have a much lower success rate than products made with other skin whitening agents.

Kojic Acid was originally created as a simple by-product that came about when the Japanese malted rice to create sake. The use of this particular acid has also been proven to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in some individuals.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has many beneficial qualities. It provides necessary nutrients that keep your hair and skin healthy which leads to a more beautiful glow but it also has the ability to lighten skin. While it isn’t especially effective by itself it does lead to abundant results when combined with other ingredients such as vitamin E and arbutin.

Safety Concerns

While the process of skin lightening is considered to be mostly safe there are a few risks and side effects that may occur. As we mentioned earlier, some countries have banned the use of ingredients such as hydroquinone in skin lighteners which includes most of Europe and other parts of the world. There have also been companies that have been known to use mercury in their skin whitening products which, for obvious reasons, is dangerous.

The skin lightening industry is still a very new market of cosmetics and there is still much to be learned about it. But, as of right now, the risks involved include the possibility of skin irritation, the use of certain products containing mercury or hyrdoquinone could lead to cancer (only confirmed in lab mice so far, but unsettling still), and a few other minor conditions.

IMPORTANT: For your own personal safety you should never begin use of any product without first talking with your doctor or physician to make sure it’ll be alright for you.

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