What are the Different Types of Skin Lightening Treatment?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2019
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There are generally three different types of skin lightening treatments. They are typically used to treat pigmentation issues, although in some cultures they are used simply for cosmetic purposes. The most common skin lightening treatment is topical skin whitening cream or gel. It can be made from several different primary ingredients and is usually coupled with sunscreen and a topical retinoid for optimal effect. When this skin lightening treatment fails to work, cryosurgery and laser treatments can also be options.

The most common topical ingredients used for skin lightening are hydroquinone, mequinol, azelaic acid, kojic acid, and derivatives of certain mulberry plants. Hydroquinone, which has been banned in Europe for its possible connection with leukemia, inhibits the skin's ability to make melanin, which is what gives skin its color. When its strength is at 2%, it has been proven effective in treating pigmentation issues and reducing the overall color of the skin. While available in 4% strength, this amount of hydroquinone can be dangerous.


A skin lightening treatment that contains mequinol, which also inhibits melanin production, is believed by many researchers to be a safer alternative to hydroquinone. Azelaic acid, typically used at 20% strength, has also been shown to work as a skin lightening treatment, though it is not usually as effective as hydroquinone and mequinol. Kojic acid, commonly found in Asian countries, is a highly effective cosmetic whitening treatment, although it is an unstable substance and therefore can be expensive. For a more natural skin whitening treatment, derivatives of the mulberry plant can be used; it tends to have the same effect on the skin as hydroquinone, but without the side effects. These skin lightening lotions and gels work best when sunscreen is regularly applied, and hydroquinone and mequinol are best when coupled with a topical retinoid cream.

When skin lightening creams fail to work, cryosurgery — which uses liquid nitrogen — may be an appropriate skin lightening treatments for people of all skin tones. The liquid nitrogen causes melanin to rise to the surface of the skin and then peel off a few days later. This treatment is best done on small areas of skin and does carry the risk of increased pigmentation issues.

Laser treatments have also been effective when used as a skin lightening treatment. While not recommended for those with darker skin, it can significantly improve the evenness of skin tone, although it can also produce hyper-pigmentation in some patients. Laser treatments are best to reduce dark spots and are not typically recommended for whitening the entire face.

Each skin lightening treatment can be used for different purposes. Creams and gels are most often for an overall lightening effect, while laser treatments and cryosurgery are typically used for reducing the appearance of dark spots. As with any cosmetic treatment, there are certain risks; any skin lightening treatment should be discussed with a dermatologist or primary care doctor beforehand.


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Post 3

@Mor - It's not always completely inessential. If someone has a birthmark or a skin pigment disorder, it can be better for their self esteem and well being if they can reduce the extent that their skin looks strange.

I do think that the current trend of lighter skin being idolized should be changed though.

Post 2

@Fa5t3r - That is the worst thing about any of these skin whitening products being promoted and used in third world countries by women who want the privileges (unfortunately) afforded to people with lighter skin. Even if the treatments do work (and many are just a scam) they make it very difficult to go out into the sun because the skin can be easily damaged. Since many of these countries are in places where there is a lot of sun and women have to work in it to feed their families, they are basically just setting themselves up to eventually become sick, or disfigured when their skin is damaged.

It makes me furious that this is an entirely cosmetic practice that gets promoted as being essential to well-being and the opposite is true. It's poor women being exploited in the purest sense.

Post 1

I had to get a laser treatment for some hair growth on my face and I was pleasantly surprised to realize that it had evened out my skin tone as well. I lost most of my freckles and even seemed to lose a bit of redness from acne scars. They basically scabbed over and then when the scab came off, the pigment came with it.

I was never really against my freckles, but I do think I look better without them. The only thing is that you have to be very careful about being out in the sun afterwards as they will just come right back.

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