Learn about the different skin lightening procedures and discover the risks involved in reducing melanin in the skin.
The quest for skin whitening has been a trend for ages, especially in certain parts of Africa and Asia. In fact, the WHO found that skin-whitener use ranges from 25% in Mali to 77% in Nigeria, and 40% in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea.
While beauty comes in all shades and colors, different cultures have different beauty standards. Some people like tanned skin while some people like fair skin. Some who prefer the latter have even literally risked their lives to achieve a lighter complexion by using products containing or undergoing harsh bleaching procedures.
Of course, not everyone who wants to reduce the melanin in their skin wants to achieve fairer skin. Some just want to even out their skin tones and address some dark spots. But the big question is, is it possible? And is it worth it?
Whether you want to make your skin lighter, address some hyperpigmentation, or even out your skin tone to the rest of your body, this article is for you. If you want to know more about how to reduce melanin in the skin, then keep reading.
What Is Melanin?
Melanin is a skin pigment that is present in both humans and animals. This pigment is responsible for the color of your skin, hair, and eyes. It occurs in varying degrees and is the primary factor in making your skin appear darker. Melanin also protects the skin and eyes from UV rays.
The word ‘melanin’ originated from the Greek word ‘melanos’ which means dark/black.
Melanin is produced by a group of cells known as melanocytes. These cells are located at the bottom of your skin’s epidermis and other parts of your body. The amount of melanin produced in your body is dependent on your genes. This is known as constitutive pigmentation.
Individuals living in countries near the equator tend to have darker skin. This is because the body increases melanin production to protect itself against the high concentration of UV radiation in these areas.
Can We Reduce Melanin Levels in Our Skin?
The short answer is yes. Temporarily, reducing melanin in the skin is possible. Using modern treatment solutions and medicine, melanin synthesis can be inhibited. Before we go into the nitty-gritty of melanin reduction, let’s first define and distinguish the most common terms used.
Skin lightening vs. skin brightening vs. skin whitening
Although these three terms are often used interchangeably, they have different technical connotations.
Skin lightening is the process of evening out the color of your skin. This is done by using topical creams/ointments or undergoing certain clinical procedures. Its aim is to treat the discolorations and dark spots on the skin and achieve an even-toned skin.
Skin brightening is the process of removing dull and dead skin cells to rejuvenate the skin. It aims to add more radiance and glow to the skin. It is usually achieved by applying topical solutions or undergoing facial/body treatments like chemical peels and microdermabrasion.
Skin whitening is the process of bleaching the skin to achieve a fairer complexion. It involves harsher cosmetic procedures aimed at reducing the melanin in the skin. It involves the use of strong melanin inhibitors like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury.
As can be gleaned from above, skin whitening is the most harmful of the three. Multiple studies have shown the dangerous effects of skin whitening. Its effects can range from as minor issues like increased sensitivity to sunlight to major problems such as renal and neurological complications and skin cancer.
As skin whitening does more harm than good, we do not recommend it. While its effects are only temporary, the damage it does to the skin is permanent. Their superficial benefits simply do not outweigh their risks. So for this article, we will be focusing on safer methods to reduce melanin in our skin. Below are some of the most common procedures done and ingredients used in skin brightening and skin lightening:
If you have dark spots, acne scars, or other blemishes, laser therapy is your best bet. This skin lightening procedure directs short, pulsating beams of light on the skin. It removes the skin layer by layer with utmost precision.
LASER is an acronym for ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.’
There are three common types of lasers used in this treatment. These are ablative, non-ablative, and Q-Switched Ruby Lasers (QSRL).
Ablative lasers ‘wound’ the outermost part of the skin (epidermis). It also heats up the middle layer of the skin (dermis) to stimulate collagen fiber growth. When the wounded epidermis ‘heals’, the skin appears lighter and more even.
Non-ablative lasers, on the other hand, do not wound the skin. This non-invasive skin lightening procedure uses lasers to heat the skin. The heat stimulates collagen production and makes the skin lighter over time.
Q-Switched Ruby Lasers use synthetic ruby crystals as laser mediums. This involves the selective destruction of pigmented cells. It is usually used in tattoo removal procedures and cutaneous pigmented lesion treatments.
Ablative treatments are only recommended to be done once to a few times per year. The frequency of the treatment will depend upon the dermatologist’s advice. It will also vary depending on the skin condition sought to be addressed.
Since non-ablative laser therapies use weaker lasers, they need to be done more frequently than ablative ones. The treatment process for this is gradual and progressive. With this, the therapy usually takes longer. But on the plus side, there’s no down time needed for this procedure.
Risk factors of laser therapy include possible infections, ectropion, acne, milia, and burns. Sometimes, they can even lead to scarring and dyspigmentation. Redness and swelling are also temporary side effects of laser treatments.
Chemical peel procedures involve the use of chemical solutions to exfoliate the top layer of the skin. The chemicals in chemical peels (i.e. salicylic acid) induce the phagocytosis of stagnant melanin. In simpler terms, these chemicals surround and eliminate melanin-pigmented cells.
Light chemical peels use mild acids to treat superficial pigmentations like freckles and lentigos. They gently exfoliate the epidermis. Medium chemical peels use stronger acids like trichloroacetic or glycolic acid. They remove the dead skin cells in the epidermis and dermis. They’re advisable for treating melasma and age spots.
Deep chemical peels use very strong acids that penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. This peel exfoliates and makes the skin literally ‘peel off’. They’re recommended for the treatment of deep wrinkles and removal of precancerous growths.
Light chemical peels are advisable to be done every 2 – 5 weeks. On the other hand, medium chemical peels are advisable to be done every 4 – 6 months. Deep chemical peels are not recommended for multiple treatments. These deliver dramatic results and use very harsh chemicals. Usually, a single deep chemical peel can address the skin issue right away.
The risk factors of chemical peels include possible infections, scarring, scabbing, burns, and redness. Overusing deep chemical peels can also expose you to heart, kidney or liver damage.
Microdermabrasion is a non-invasive procedure that gently exfoliates the top layer of the skin. It uses fine aluminum oxide crystals that are either sprayed or rubbed onto the skin. Then, a small handheld vacuum device sucks in the crystals along with the dead skin cells. This procedure helps reveal brighter and more radiant skin.
Its benefits include treating melasma, photoaging, clogged pores, and striae distensae. But there are also several risk factors involved in getting this procedure done. This includes possible infections, scarring, eye irritation, and increased sensitivity to sunlight.
You can get it done as often as once every week to once every eight weeks. Ultimately, the frequency of the treatment would depend on sound medical advice.
Topical creams or serums
Aside from those mentioned above, there are also many topical creams and serums that can help in reducing melanin in the skin. These topical solutions contain various ingredients that aid in skin lightening/brightening. The most common of these include the following:
Hydroquinone is a depigmenting agent that is used to lighten skin, treat melasma, and prevent age spots. It inhibits melanin production in the body by preventing the activity of tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is the enzyme responsible for catalyzing melanin production by oxidation.
The US-FDA considers this safe in low doses (1 to 2% concentrations). But it has expressed concerns regarding its possible carcinogenic tendencies. In 2006, the US-FDA proposed a ban on over-the-counter cosmetic products containing hydroquinone.
As per the ASEAN Cosmetic Directive, hydroquinone is among the substances which are not allowed to form part of any cosmetic product. The chemical is also banned in Japan and the UK.
Kojic Acid is a natural metabolite occuring in fungi. It is a by-product of certain fermentation processes in soy sauce and in rice wines. Like hydroquinone, kojic acid also inhibits melanin production. It does this by preventing tyrosinase activity which catalyzes the melanin synthesis.
Kojic acid has been generally regarded as the safer alternative to hydroquinone. But it is not without any unwanted side effects. Excessive use can lead to redness, swelling, oversensitivity to sunlight, and skin irritation.
Retinoids are a class of vitamers that are chemically derived from Vitamin A. Some of the commonly used types of retinoid are retinol, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and alitretinoin. They’re used for treating different dermatological issues like acne, wrinkles, psoriasis, and warts.
Retinoid is a common ingredient in skin lightening creams/serums. It inhibits melanin synthesis by blocking epidermal cell melanin transport and decreasing the activity of melanocytes. This results in lighter, even-toned skin.
A study showed that tretinoins can help reduce melanin in the skin with long-term use. It also significantly lightens postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and evens out skin tone.
Vitamin C is a naturally occuring nutrient that is vital to various body processes. It helps in inhibiting melanin production and inducing collagen formation. Research has shown that Vit. C can also help sunscreens work better by adding a layer of protection against UVB damage.
Dermatologists recommend topical application of Vit. C over its oral intake. Oral Vitamin C intake has limited bioavailability so its absorption is much less than when it’s topically applied. Vit. C in topical creams/serums aid in inhibiting tyrosinase activity, thereby promoting melanin reduction.
Like kojic acid, azelaic acid is regarded as a safe alternative to hydroquinone. This antibacterial acid is usually used in acne and hyperpigmentation treatments. It is also a tyrosinase inhibitor that’s effective in reducing melanin production.
While azelaic acid doesn’t make your skin photosensitive, improper use of this compound can result in harmful side effects. These can include burning/tingling sensations on the skin and skin flaking/blistering.
Niacinamide is also known as nicotinamide. This soluble Vitamin B3 derivative has powerful anti-inflammatory and skin lightening properties. While this nutrient doesn’t inhibit melanin production, it helps in the depigmentation process by reducing melanin transfer.
Although generally considered safe, niacinamide in high concentration may cause skin irritation and redness to appear. It may also be unsuitable for people with pre-existing allergies as this compound has tendencies to release histamine that can trigger allergic reactions.
How to Slow Down Melanin Production in the Skin
Sunscreen can help protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. They can either absorb the UV rays (chemical sunscreens) or reflect them (physical sunscreens). Essentially, they help in preventing the development of skin cancer.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
With proper use, sunscreens can also slow down your melanin production. When the skin gets exposed to the sun or other UV ray sources, the body produces more melanin to protect itself. Wearing sunscreen will slow the process down.
Experts recommend using broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect the skin not only from UVA but also from UVB. The recommended Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is at least 30 and it should be water-resistant. Sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours if you are outdoors, whether it’s cloudy or sunny. Apply it at least 15 mins. before being exposed to the sun.
Your chances of getting melanoma is doubled when you get five or more sunburns. Be sure to diligently and properly wear your sunscreen. Don’t forget to apply some to your lips.
If you’re a fan of DIYs and home remedies, there are many safe and natural alternatives that may help in reducing melanin. They are: turmeric, aloe vera, and green tea.
Turmeric has long been used in several skin home remedies. It contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can address many skin issues. Additionally, turmeric can also be used for skin lightening.
Turmeric contains curcumin which is a very powerful antioxidant. A study showed that curcumin can help inhibit tyrosinase activity and melanin synthesis. For skin lightening purposes, you can mix turmeric in your DIY face scrubs and masks.
Store-bought turmeric powders sometimes have artificial yellow dyes in them. This can cause unwanted yellow stains on your face and body if you use them. Look for non-staining turmeric variants like kasturi turmeric.
Aloe vera gel
Aloe vera is a very popular natural ingredient that is used in skin care. Aloe vera gels have mild skin depigmenting agents that can help lighten the skin. You can extract the gel from the leaf and apply it directly on your face. Leave it on for at least ten minutes and wash it off thoroughly.
Green tea is a powerful antioxidant that contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Studies have shown that EGCG is effective in inhibiting melanin synthesis. For your DIY skin lightening treatment, you can apply green tea extract directly onto your skin and leave it for 30 minutes before washing it off.
You can even use green tea leaves as a natural exfoliant. You can gently rub them on your face and body to reveal brighter and more moisturized skin. Just be careful not to over-rub as this can cause skin irritation and damage.
Word of Caution
You’ve probably heard about lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, and ammonia in popular DIY skin bleaching solutions. But using them is dangerous and can even lead to burns, skin damage, scarring, and even skin darkening.
Using hydrogen peroxide can cause blistering and seborrheic keratosis. Similarly, using bleach and ammonia on your skin can do more harm than good. These chemicals are highly-corrosive and can cause unwanted burns and scars. The ever-popular DIY skin care ingredient, lemon juice, should be avoided too. The high concentration of acid in lemon juice may lead to redness, irritation, and phytophotodermatitis.
Is the melanin reduction permanent?
No, the effects of the treatments and creams are temporary. As of date, permanent melanin reduction/inhibition is impossible. The body’s melanin production is dependent on genetic factors. Thus, maintenance treatments and continued product use will be necessary.
What are my risks?
Reducing melanin in your skin will expose you to several risks. Some of them include the following:
Increased sun sensitivity & skin cancer
As discussed, melanin protects the skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays. Reducing it will necessarily reduce the UV protection it offers. This increases your chance of developing sun sensitivity and skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide. Its common types include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Increased risk of irritation and sensitivity
Because lightening products and treatments remove the top layer of your skin, the skin becomes thinner. Consequently, it becomes more susceptible to irritation and infection. Moreover, skin lightening ingredients often cause allergic reactions due to increased skin sensitivity.
Melanin-reducing procedures and treatments will always be in demand. Whatever your reason is, it is important to know the downsides in reducing melanin in the skin. With sufficient information at hand, you can now intelligently weigh in the benefits and risks of skin lightening.
If you have any questions or comments, leave us a comment below. Also, if you have more skin lightening tricks up your sleeve, feel free to share them with us. We’d love to hear from you!