A Look on the Bright Side

Decades ago as the bain de soleil model tried to convince us that the epitome of beauty and wealth was achieving a bronze tan while lounging on a yacht, women in Asia favored the luminous beauty of milky white skin. "White or very light skin has been a sign of wealth and extreme beauty in Asian countries for centuries," explains Annet King, training and development manager for Dermalogica at The International Dermal Institute. "Only workers in the fields were tan. Asian skin is highly susceptible to hyperpigmentation with things as small as a bug bite or a pimple causing discoloration, not to mention the sun. We originally developed our whitening products because they were highly requested by distributors in Asian countries."

Brightening Products

Why the sudden need?

For the past few decades, many Americans used tanning as a way to even out skintone and create a "healthy glow." With health-consciousness affecting recent beauty trends, the pendulum has swung back and the goal is lighter, brighter, even-toned skin. "The radiance women are looking for today is the look of light reflecting off the skin's surface evenly," says Dennis Gross, M.D., board certified dermatologist, researcher and biochemist, and founder of M.D. Skincare. "A tan only evens out the color, but a combination of alpha and beta hydroxy acids with vitamins and plant extracts evens out the skin's color and texture and can even reduce fine lines."

The seemingly sudden popularity of skin brightening products is due to a number of factors. Our skin is becoming increasingly more sensitive to discoloration due a number of factors including the use of oral contraceptives, antibiotics, past acne, heart medicine, smog, and pollution, as well as the use of sunscreen and the decrease in the ozone. "There are four times the number of cases of skin cancer since 1978," says Deirdre Burke, director of sales and education for MD Formulations, referring to the year that the FDA accepted SPF as a gauge of effectiveness for UVB sunscreens. "These days, people apply sunscreen, go out in the sun, and never think to reapply."

"According to the Skin Phototrauma Foundation, for every 1 percent decrease in ozone, there will be a compounded 2 percent increase in the UVB wavelengths that reach the earth and a 3 to 6 percent increase in the incidence of skin cancer," states The Murad Method (St. Martin's Press, August 2003), by dermatologist Howard Murad, M.D., CEO, and founder of Murad. Murad writes, "Before your clients begin any lightening program, they should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen (which absorbs or blocks UVA and UVB rays)."

"Every skincare company is working on whitening products and suncare products," says Denise Lamarquand, director of research and development for Decleor. "What we are doing in Europe and America is trying to create products that offer a lower SPF [such as Decleor's Whitening Hydra-Matte Fluid SPF 12] and educating clients to reapply often." This provides better coverage and fewer chemicals on the skin. This point was stressed by every skincare professional interviewed in this article. "We are also dealing with the aftermath of using glycolic acids and over-exfoliating the skin," says King. "And because we have over-exfoliated, we have more pigmentation problems. We used to hide everything with makeup, but that look is passe. Now American women are starting to join European women in spending more time and money taking care of their skin and subsequently, opting for tinted moisturizers and sheer tints."

"Skin brightening products are becoming more popular today because more and more people like wearing less makeup to cover up uneven spots on their skin," says Fredric Brandt, M.D., board certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami. "They use skin brightening products to achieve a more even-toned complexion." And there is no better place to get clients interested in these products than at spas, notes Gross. "All these interesting, innovative products are now marketed through spas. We have empowered the estheticians to do and surpass what dermatologists have been doing for years," he says.

"I find that almost everyone needs brightening products," says Sonya Dakar, founder of the Sonya Dakar skincare clinic in West Hollywood, CA, and the Sonya Dakar skincare line. "We discovered that people who completely stay out of the sun still accumulate sun exposure. And it affects all ethnicities."

Brightening Products

What Are They Made Of?

Generations of geishas in Japan and Kabuki actors have used nightingale droppings as a cleanser and skin brightener. Japanese women found that they could lighten and brighten their skin by washing their faces in the same water used to wash rice. Although these may sound like antiquated ideas, natural ingredients are just as important in today's skin brightening products as they were centuries ago.

"Your skin cells have an amino acid called tyrosine and an enzyme called tyrosinase that breaks down the amino acid, which becomes dopa," explains Murad. "This is ultimately converted to melanin. Tyrosinase inhibitors [such as mulberry extract and hydroquinone] look like tyrosine to the body, but they don't allow the body to create dopa, which would ultimately become melanin or pigment." Mulberry extract (obtained from the root of morus alba, a plant from Japan) is one example of a tyrosine inhibitor. "When mulberry extract combines with tyrosine and tyrosinase, there is a 60 to 80 percent reduction of melanin production," says Lamarquand. The main active ingredients in today's skin brightening products (listed in the sidebar) include: pure vitamin C, ascorbic acid, lactic acid, mulberry extract, licorice extract, bearberry extract, ichtiol (a derivative of sulfur), cedar oil, kojic acid (a Japanese mushroom derivative), aspergillus extract (a more stable form of kojic acid), lemon extract, citrus onshiu extract (from Japanese fruit), mitracarpus scaber (plant extract), kiwi extract, and phytic acid extract (from rice bran). Most of these ingredients are able to lighten the skin because they are tyrosinase inhibitors.

The Problem with Hydroquinone

While these products can lighten hyperpigmentation, they can only claim to be skin brighteners. The term "lightening" can only be used for hydroquinone per FDA guidelines, although many companies break this rule in their advertisements and packaging. This is very similar to the term "anti-aging," which FDA guidelines state apply only to sunscreens. Numerous skincare products, however, use the term as well. Opinions differ on the safety and effectiveness of hydroquinone, which can be sold at 2 percent over the counter and 4 to 6 percent with a doctor's prescription. "A third of the population is said to be allergic to it," says King. "While both hydroquinone and the natural plant extracts listed above interfere with the melanin production pathway, the plant extracts do not interfere with the cell itself."

"Hydroquinone is generally believed to be the most effective skin brightener on the market," says Israel Dakar, chemist and husband of Sonya Dakar. "However, during intensive clinical and medical studies on animals, hydroquinone was found to have severe side effects. In order to maintain the lightened effect, one must continue use of the product indefinitely. We decided to look for healthier, effective alternatives." This is a sentiment shared by most of the skincare manufacturers in this article.

"Hydroquinone does work because it suppresses the activity of the melanocyte by putting it to sleep so it doesn't produce pigment," says Burke. "The problem with hydroquinone is that long-term use can create complications such as darkening of the skin, and it may be toxic to the cells. We are the only country that allows hydroquinone to be sold over the counter. There is a movement afoot for the FDA to discontinue such over-the-counter use. This is why many companies opt for the natural extracts."

Step One: Exfoliate

No matter how man brightening products are included in a line, they all have the same underlying mechanism of action: exfoliate, penetrate, and protect. "Usually in medicine, we don't have just one product that does everything," says Barry DiBernardo, M.D., New Jersey Plastic Surgery board certified plastic surgeon, member of the ASAPS, clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, chief of plastic surgery at Mountainside Hospital, Montclair, NJ, and vice president of the New Jersey Society of Plastic Surgeons. "The best results are often from a combination of products. You need something that gets through the dead cells on the surface such as a fruit, lactic, or retinoic acid, or microdermabrasion.
Skin Brightening Resource Guide
Skin Brightening Resource Guide

It has to be able to get that layer off to allow the skin to be exposed to the active ingredients, which also speed up the turnover of the cells." This prepares the skin for the brightening product to penetrate, followed by sunscreen protection.

"In exfoliation, people often forget that we a have a natural process of cell turnover every 28 days," says Lydia Sarfati, founder and CEO of Rep¨age. "This never stops, but as we get older, this process becomes a little sluggish and causes the skin to be uneven in color and tone because it never sheds all at the same time. Exfoliation allows the turnover to occur evenly at once." It is also important to be gentle when exfoliating. "Any inflammation, such as redness or puffiness, causes aging of the skin, which creates free radicals and damages the skin," says King.

Step Two: Penetrate

Once the skin is exfoliated, it's ready for the products to penetrate. "If you have the best product in the world and it doesn't penetrate well, then it won't work," says DiBernardo. "You need a multi-level approach." According to Israel Dakar, several key components must be in place in order for the product to work. "The brightening agents are important, but without the proper formula, many of the positive effects can be lost in the translation. For example, a formula must be created with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Discolored skin is not only discolored because of melanin production-skin appears discolored because of oxidation, dryness, dehydration, and damaged cells in general. Therefore, it is imperative that the overall health of the skin be addressed as well as the discoloration resulting from the overproduction of melanin. The formula must also include healthy ingredients that will strengthen, hydrate, and improve texture and tone." The combination of tyrosinase inhibitors, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and hydrators is the key to quality brightening products.

Step Three: Protect

"One of the problems with using skin lightening products is that people don't look at the whole picture," warns Murad. "Environmental damage, free radical inflammation, hormonal effects, drugs, and dietary issues all affect our skin. This isn't an attack in one direction only, therefore we need to take care of skin with both broad-spectrum sunscreen or sunblock; physical blockers such as hats, sunglasses, and tightly woven clothing; internal supplements, and a multi-pronged approach to skin lightening."