Skin lightening treatments can temporarily reduce your skin’s melanin production. Here’s how to do it, as well as important precautions and potential side effects.
Melanin is the pigment that gives color to your skin, hair, and eyes. It’s created by cells called melanocytes, which are found in the outer layer of your skin.
We all have about the same number of melanocytes. However, some people’s cells make more melanin, as well as certain types of melanin, than others. Having more melanin means you have darker skin.
Sometimes, melanin can build up in certain areas and cause darkening of the skin, which doctors may call hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation results in some parts of your skin being darker than others.
While it’s possible to spot-treat existing melanin deposits, there are risks and limitations. It’s also possible to lower melanin production in the skin.
Read on to learn more about reducing melanin production and removing melanin deposits, including precautions and what to expect.
There are several ways to lower existing melanin deposits in the skin. It’s important that you consult a doctor first for guidance on these methods.
Laser therapy uses a pulse of light to remove the top layers of skin. It decreases melanin in the treated areas. There are several types of laser treatments, including:
- Ablative lasers: These remove outer skin layers and are ideal for severe discoloration.
- Nonablative lasers: These are gentler than ablative lasers. They promote collagen growth, which increases the skin’s plumpness.
- 1064 nm laser: This specifically targets melanin and destroys it selectively. It does not remove the top layer of the skin.
As with any medical procedure, laser therapy is not for everyone. It can also cause side effects like discoloration, scarring, and infection. Extra caution must be exercised on skin of color, as excessive use of lasers may lead to noticeable depigmentation and other adverse side effects.
Talk with a dermatologist to see if you’re a good candidate for the procedure.
Other light-based therapy
Intense pulse light (IPL) uses pulses of light energy to target sunspots by heating and destroying the melanin, which removes the discolored spots. Unlike a laser, which uses a single frequency of light, IPL employs scattered light of many wavelengths.
In IPL therapy, light energy penetrates down to the dermis and is converted into heat which clears the unwanted pigment.
IPL is not recommended for people with darker skin. For people of color, the 1064 nm laser is a safer option.
Topical creams or ointments
You can also use topical creams or ointments to lighten skin. These products decrease existing melanin in the areas in which they’re used.
Skin lightening products are available by prescription or over the counter (OTC). Typically, a product will have one of the following ingredients:
- kojic acid
- vitamin C
- glycolic acid
- azelaic acid
- hydroquinone (only available by prescription)
- arbutin (a milder form of hydroquinone)
Many of these suppress tyrosinase, the main enzyme needed for melanin synthesis. This slows down melanin production and results in lighter skin.
However, skin lightening products are known to cause side effects like:
It’s important that you consult a dermatologist before using lightening creams or ointments.
Methods to lower melanin production do not involve medical treatments, but they do depend on your sun care habits and some natural remedy options.
Sunscreen and sun exposure
The purpose of melanin is to protect your skin from sun damage. When you’re exposed to the sun, your skin creates even more melanin.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the best sunscreen is:
- broad spectrum
- SPF 30 or higher
- water resistant
Sunscreen does not block 100% of the sun’s UV rays. To further limit how much melanin your skin makes, you may want to consider these tips:
- limit your sun exposure
- stay indoors from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest
- wear protective clothing, such as sunglasses, long sleeves, and hats
- avoid tanning beds
Some people claim some natural remedies can lighten the skin. It’s not clear how long these remedies take to work, so it’s important to be patient if you decide to try them. Additionally, they’re all temporary, so you’ll need to continue using them routinely.
According to a 2012 study in
Aloe vera gel
However, an older 2012 study found aloe vera does not have these effects.
Though the research is conflicting, people who use aloe vera gel say it helps lighten skin.
Some people also use lemon juice to reduce skin pigmentation. This may be due to its high vitamin C content. According to a 2017 article in the
Despite its potential anti-pigmentation effect, lemon juice can be harsh on the skin.
Use only when diluted and avoid the sun after use. In particular, people with darker skin have a greater risk of phytophotodermatitis with subsequent sun exposure after applying citrus fruits like lemon to their skin.
Green tea has a compound called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). A
Not all home remedies are created equally. Some remedies can cause skin irritation, redness, or damage.
Every person’s body continually creates melanin. The amount is determined by genetics.
You can lighten and perhaps remove existing hyperpigmentation, but it may return.
There is one permanent OTC skin lightening treatment available called monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone (monobenzone). It’s used in cases of extreme vitiligo to lighten isolated dark spots so they match the affected skin more closely.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a
Skin lightening poses several risks. If you try to lower melanin, you may have:
- Higher chances of sun damage: Less melanin means less protection from the sun’s rays. This raises the risk of wrinkles, uneven texture, and discoloration.
- Increased risk of skin cancer: The high risk of sun damage also increases your chances of developing skin cancer.
- Irritation and sensitivity: The actual process of skin lightening is harsh on the skin. Many treatments can cause side effects like redness, itchiness, and contact dermatitis.
Injectable skin lightening products are available, but the
Skin lightening treatments can temporarily reduce your skin’s melanin production. Most of them work by suppressing the enzyme that’s needed to form melanin.
However, aside from wearing sunscreen and limiting sun exposure, you cannot lower your body’s overall melanin production.
Permanent reduction is not advised since melanin formation is determined by genetics. The one product currently known to be permanent is not
If you have hyperpigmentation, consider talking with a doctor about how to reduce melanin in the affected areas. They can suggest the appropriate treatments or remedies for your needs.