Brightening is a tricky issue. Not only are dark spots and uneven skin tone caused by a multitude of factors, you have to take a multi-pronged approach to effectively combat this issue. From inhibiting the production of excess melanin, regulating the transfer of melanin pigments from melanocytes (skin cells that make melanin) to skin cells at the surface as well as accelerating cellular turnover so surface skin cells that contain melanin are effectively eliminated, it’s a chain reaction that’s difficult to put a stop to.
But years of research means beauty companies have identified ingredients that are effective in addressing each stage of melanin production, as well as bring about other skin-conditioning benefits for a healthy and radiant complexion. Here are the five most commonly used brightening ingredients you need to know about:
Licorice Root Extract
Licorice root and licorice tea. Photo: Shutterstock
Traditionally used in Chinese medicine as an herb to treat gastrointestinal problems like diarrhoea, food poisoning and even stomach ulcers. This is because licorice has high amounts of glycyrrhizic acid, which is great for boost immunity and fighting inflammation. It’s also widely consumed as a tea to help improve digestion. When applied onto the skin, the same anti-inflammatory properties work to reduce redness and soothe irritation. And since melanin over-production can be traced back to cellular inflammation, licorice helps to inhibit hyperpigmentation right at the source.
A classic all-rounder in skincare products, we know it as an excellent antioxidant, anti-ager as well as a brightener. But how exactly does it work? Once absorbed into skin, vitamin C acts in a way that’s similar to arbutin: it suppresses the production of melanin by inhibiting the activity of the enzyme tyrosinase. This means that it nips the pigmentation problem right at the bud. Moreover, vitamin C also neutralising free radicals which can leave skin looking dull and lacklustre. Plus, it also supports collagen synthesis, which further helps skin appear plumper and thus brighter as well.
Obtained from mushroom-like fungi, kojic acid is also a byproduct of common Japanese food like sake and soy sauce. This might explain why Japanese beauty companies were among the first to popularise the use of kojic acid in their brightening products. While kojic acid is effective in stopping melanin production at its source (and diminish the appearance of acne scars), it is also known to cause irritation in some cases. So if you have sensitive skin or are trying products with kojic acid for the first time, it’s best to do a patch test or opt for products with lower concentrations of the chemical. Alternatively, you can try incorporating kojic acid in products like a wash-off mask instead of something you leave on, like a serum or cream.
On top of being effective against melanin inhibition, kojic acid also has additional anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Bearberries, a source of arbutin. Photo: Shutterstock
A quick Google search and you’ll find that a chemical called hydroquinone often ranks high in the list of ingredients that are clinically proven to be effective in reducing the appearance of dark spots. However, it’s also often associated with potential risks, especially for pregnant women. Which is why arbutin has been slowly gaining in popularity over the years. Regarded as a safer alternative to hydroquinone, arbutin acts on pigmentation the same way that hydroquinone does, but without the potential risks. Derived from bearberry, blueberry and cranberry, arbutin acts on tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for signalling to melanocytes that it’s time to start producing melanin. So when melanin synthesis is stopped right at its source, it’s only a matter of time before existing melanin gradually fades as your skin renews itself over time.
In addition to being extract from berries, arbutin can also by artificially synthesised, and there’s been some research that points to the synthetic form being more effective than its natural form.
Also known as vitamin B3 (or sometimes nicotinic acid), niacinamide is also a powerful skincare ingredient that has multiple benefits, including brightening, refining skin texture and strengthening skin’s barrier layer. Plus, it is also a stable compound, making it easy to work with in formulation as it doesn’t break down when exposed to light and heat. When absorbed into skin, niacinamide acts by reducing the amount of melanin that gets transferred from melanocytes (the source of melanin synthesis as melanocytes are specific skin cells that produce melanin) to surrounding skin cells. This means that less melanin makes it to the skin surface, which in turn results in lightened spots and more even skin tone.