About Skin Lightening
Topicals that lighten skin are often the first line of defense against discoloration caused by sun spots, melasma, or post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation that occurs after an acne lesion or other wound to the skin heals. Hydroquinone is the active ingredient in most skin-lightening creams and gels, which are available with or without prescription. However, there's another important component to treating dark splotches on your skin: Use sun protection.
Hyper-pigmentation is a benign, but aesthetically displeasing condition in which excess melanin forms in certain parts of the skin. Age spots, also called sun spots and liver spots, form after repeated exposure to the sun on parts of the body that see it the most--the face, hands and shoulders. Melasma, which frequently occurs during pregnancy, causes unbecoming brown splotches to form on both sides of the face. Acne lesions and wounds to the skin can leave behind deposits of melanin called post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation. Melasma and post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation are typically self-resolving; skin-lightening treatments may be used to hasten along the process. Stubborn sun spots, however, are irreversible and require specific attention. People of all races can experience hyper-pigmentation--even those with very dark skin, says the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD).
The active ingredient in most over-the-counter and prescription skin-lightening products is hydroquinone, which has bleaching properties. Nonprescription creams should contain no more than 2 percent of this ingredient, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Prescription creams can contain up to 4 percent. Dermatologists prescribe these creams when over-the-counter creams fail to adequately remedy hyper-pigmentation.
Read the label of skin-lightening products that use hydroquinone as an agent, advises the AAD. If the concentration is not clearly specified, it's best to put it back on the shelf. The AAD cautions that if you use a product with too much hydroquinone, and this treatment is inappropriate for your skin, the end result could be a worse discoloration that cannot be treated.
The most effective topical treatment for hyper-pigmentation may involve a combination of creams, says the AOCD, if this is what your dermatologist recommends. In addition to a bleaching cream, a prescription tretinoin cream and cortisone cream may be added to achieve better results. People with sensitive skin may find this treatment irritating, cautions the AOCD. Skin lightening also takes a long time--between 3 to 6 months--before you begin to notice the discolorations fading. For extremely stubborn discoloration, the AOCD states that chemical peels and laser treatments may be necessary. The latter treatment is generally not used on people with dark complexions.
Topical hydroquinone is sold under more than 30 trade names, according the Drugs.com. Inform your doctor if you have any drug allergies, or if you suffer from liver or kidney disease before using this medication. Hydroquinone should not be applied to skin that's damaged (sun or windburn or open wounds).
Because skin-lightening treatment can be irritating, it is important to treat the skin gently. Use a mild cleanser and avoid harsh skincare products, especially those that contain alcohol, lime, spices or other astringents.
It is important to use sun protection when using hydroquinone because it can make your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet rays. Avoid intentional tanning, including the use of tanning beds and sun lamps.
If age spots are a particular concern, or if you plan to undergo skin-lightening treatment, let "sun protection" be your watchword. Sun spots, melasma and post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation get darker when exposed to ultraviolet rays. Skincare expert Paula Begoun stresses the importance of not only restricting your exposure to the sun, but using a sunscreen whenever you go outdoors. If you don't, you're wasting your money on a skin-lightening cream or dermatologist's treatment. Begoun advises using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a protection factor of at least 15, but ideally higher. The AAD stresses the importance of sunscreen use to prevent hyper-pigmentation from worsening, even if you have a dark complexion.
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