12 Skin Whitening Active Ingredients – Expectations vs. Reality


Skin whitening active ingredients are an essential point when choosing these skincare products.

Each skin whitening product consists of a bunch of chemicals. Most of them are derived from natural sources. Although most of the active ingredients are effective, some of them may have some side effects.

That’s why discussing such active ingredients is a must. You have to understand how precisely each product works on the skin, the efficacy and side effects of each.

Ingredient #1 – Hydroquinone

It’s the most commonly used active ingredient in skin whitening products. It decreases melanin production. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has limited its use to the concentration of only 2% in the over the counter skin whitening products.

That is a result of the fear of its carcinogenicity. Research studies stated that it also causes skin irritation. Thus some products contain cortisone to relieve such irritation. Yet, it’s an effective active ingredient for skin whitening products, with antioxidant activity.

Ingredient #2 – Azelaic Acid

It’s a natural ingredient, derived from grains such as rye, wheat, and barley. Azelaic acid is used for acne treatment. But, it’s found to be also effective in the skin whitening process, reducing melanin production.

It’s produced in the form of 10-20% concentration creams. Research studies recommended it to be a safe, natural alternative to hydroquinone. Only except the case you are allergic to it as it may cause only allergic skin irritation.

Studies stated azelaic acid may not be effective against normal skin pigmentations (freckles, nevi).

Ingredient #3 – Vitamin C

As an antioxidant, vitamin C and its derivatives have a protective effect against skin damage caused by solar UV rays. They also have a role in the skin whitening process, reducing melanin production.

They are considered safe alternatives to hydroquinone. Research studies found that they may increase glutathione levels in the body, having a double effect in skin whitening.

Ingredient #4 – Niacinamide

In addition to skin whitening, niacinamide can also fade skin wrinkles and acne, increasing the skin’s moisture. Research studies stated that it’s one of the safest alternatives to hydroquinone. It has no side effects on the skin or the biological systems of human beings.

Ingredient #5 – Tranexamic Acid

It’s used for skin whitening in its topical, injectable and oral forms, reducing skin hyperpigmentation. It’s also another safe alternative to hydroquinone. Yet, its efficacy hasn’t been confirmed yet, but some research studies stated it to be safe and effective.

Ingredient #6 – Tretinoin

A vitamin “A” derivative which is mainly used for acne treatment but it is also useful in skin whitening, of an unknown mechanism. Yet, research studies stated that skin irritation is one of the side effects tretinoin has as well as its slow action.

It increases the sensitivity of the skin to UV rays, so users should avoid sun exposure as it may cause more tanning to their skin. Also, it is not safe in pregnancy.

Ingredient #7 – Arbutin

It’s a natural source of hydroquinone, derived from most types of pears and the leaves of cranberry, blueberry, bearberry, and mulberry. It decreases the production of melanin, especially in its pure form as it’s more effective.

It is a safe, effective alternative to other chemicals used in skin whitening products. But, research studies stated that if used in large doses, arbutin may cause more skin hyperpigmentation.

Ingredient #8 – Kojic Acid

It’s a natural ingredient, produced during the process of rice fermentation during wine production. It’s highly effective. Yet, it’s unstable, turning into a nonfunctioning brown substance in air or sunlight.

Thus, a synthetic derivative is used as an alternative in skin products, but it’s not as effective as natural kojic acid. It may cause allergic skin irritation, and some researchers suggest its carcinogenicity and some don’t, so it’s controversial.

Ingredient #9 – Glutathione

It’s an antioxidant with the ability to skin whitening. It protects the skin against sun damage, also to skin whitening. Glutathione is found in the form of lotions, creams, soaps, pills, and injections.

The most effective way is the glutathione pills with a dose of two tablets per day for 2-4 weeks to lighten the skin. Yet, the topical form is not useful as a result of its slow absorption and weak penetration through the skin. Some people prefer to use the injectable form for instant results.

However, repeated injections can cause skin infections, rashes or even skin cancer. Research studies stated the efficacy of glutathione to fade out dark spots and whiten the skin. It’s also reported to be safe.

Ingredient #10 – Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Glycolic acid and lactic acids are the most effective ones of the alpha hydroxy acid group. They can penetrate the skin layers, decreasing the production of melanin, as research studies suggested.

They also have an exfoliant effect, removing dead skin and the unhealthy, hyperpigmented skin layers. That’s why they are found to be effective in lightening hyperpigmented skin areas.

Ingredient #11 – Depigmenting Agents

Depigmenting agents such as monobenzone and mequinol can be used for permanent skin whitening. As a result of the permanent destruction of melanin-producing cells. They are used primarily for vitiligo patients.

They use creams containing such chemicals on the unaffected skin areas to have evenly toned skin. However, it’s not recommended to use such chemicals on healthy individuals. Research studies stated that monobenzone might cause skin irritation and eye affection. Some countries such as the Netherlands have limited its use.

Ingredient #12 – Mercury

It was the primary ingredient for most skin whitening products, decreasing the production of melanin in the skin. But, it was banned in Europe in 1976 and the USA in 1999 due to its horrifying side effects, accumulating in the skin. It may cause skin damage, kidney damage, or mercury toxicity.

Other Active Ingredients

There are more chemicals contributing to the industry of skin whitening. Still, more research is needed to confirm the efficacy and safety of each. One of these active ingredients is licorice extract, especially glabridin.

Research studies claimed it to be effective in lightening dark, hyperpigmented skin areas and whitening the skin. It reduces melanin production. Vitamin E has a role in skin whitening process via melanin production reduction.

It increases glutathione levels in the body. However, more research is needed to state the efficacy and safety of such chemicals.

Read about the suggested 100% natural skin whitening product line!

In the end, not all skin whitening products’ active ingredients are safe. That’s why consumers should read the ingredients before buying any skin whitening products. Some ingredients such as hydroquinone should be avoided.

They can cause severe health conditions such as skin cancers. Hydroquinone with a concentration of more than 2% of mercury should be avoided.


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