Treating Skin Discoloration with Non-Toxic Alternatives to Hydroquinone

Whether you call it melasma, the mask of pregnancy, or hyperpigmentation, dark patches of skin discoloration beyond freckles are caused by an increase in melanin production and can be a clear sign of sun damage. They tend to get darker during the sunny months, but without addressing them, they can stick around all year. Now that you’ve got em’, how do you get rid of them?

Most conventional products, especially those you might see at your derm or aestheticians office, contain hydroquinone, a lightening agent–that while very effective at lightening dark spots by suppressing melanin production–is also highly toxic. It’s a carcinogen, immunotoxicant, neurotoxin and may also be an endocrine disruptor. It has also been linked to a skin condition called ochronosis, where the skin becomes dark and thick. Not fun. It has been recommended that hydroquinone not be used in products that are left on the skin for extended periods of time, but due to lax enforcement, most products encourage frequent and consistent use. So, with hydroquinone clearly on the “do not use” list for any girl concerned with her health, what are the options?

Let’s start with prevention. Wearing sunscreen every day, even on cloudy, cold, winter days, is key to preventing hyperpigmentation to begin with. Did you know that even on cloudy days, 80 percent of damaging UV rays still reach us? Every minute of exposure counts. While we do need Vitamin D and the sun is an ideal source, you can get what you need by exposing other part of your body to the sun for a few minutes each day, just shade your face.

Suntegrity is my new favorite sun protection line, with clear and tinted formulas, formulas for body and even a Vitamin D and sun damage minimizing supplement. Their facial sunscreens are multi-purpose, providing chemical and nano-particle free, broad spectrum SPF 30 protection, along with a good dose of hydration and strong, damage fighting anti-oxidants like astaxanthin, red algae and green tea. Their “5 In 1” Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen, SPF 30, is your one-product stop that treats, hydrates, protects, primes and covers the skin, providing the perfect setting for make-up or a naturally flawless look. I’m hooked and I’ve shied away from any type foundation or all over color all my life.

The next step is to exfoliate on a regular basis. Removing surface layers of dry, damaged skin will lighten dark spots over time, as new skin replaces damaged skin, and allow your treatment of choice to penetrate more effectively. Try an acid or enzyme product like Arcona’s Raspberry Resurfacing Peel, which employs synergistic blend of mandelic, lactic and malic acids to exfoliate, hydrate and oxygenate skin for better circulation and to minimize irregular pigmentation. For a manual exfoliator, I like their Brightening Gommage, which gives you two-for-one action, sloughing off dead skin cells to lighten dark spots and clarify skin, and reducing the appearance of uneven pigmentation and scarring with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and skin-lightening daisy extract. I hate to say it, but I do occasionally love to use a mechanized brush like the Clairsonic for a good exfoliation and deep cleanse. Sensitive skin beware though, all of the above come with some level of intensity, so go slowly. If you’re truly sensitive, use a damp, warm washcloth with your regular cleanser, applying a little more pressure than usual and working in repeating circles across the face to help slough off dead skin.

Finally, apply a non-toxic lightening serum. Here are a few good ones, each making use of effective, non-toxic alternatives to hydroquinone: Tatcha’s Deep Brightening Complex, is made without hydroquinone and other nasties, formulated instead with their patented HADASEI-3 Bioactive Complex plus tried and true Asian botanicals to brighten areas of darker pigmentation. Snowberry’s Bright Defense Face Serum, features kombucha produced from fermented black tea. It decreases glycation, a process that causes aging by breaking down collagen, among other things. O.D.A. White, also a product of fermentation, this time from natural and vegetable Oleic acid, which reduces melanin synthesis and brightens skin. Finally, Brilliance by Sircuit Cosmeceuticals, formulated with SymWhite® 377, a highly effective nontoxic skin lightener that inhibits tyrosine in the skin, which is a non-essential amino acid and melanin building block. It also uses L-lactic acid to help inhibit hyper-pigmentation and lighten discolorations andn eem feaf extract to assist skin clarity and tone. 

I realize that’s a lot of beauty ingredient jargon to digest, but, if you’re serious about wanting to address your dark spots without hydroquinone or shelling out for laser or IPL treatments, this is a good place to start. 


Image: Mike Monaghan