Sunday, 20 April 2014

What are the skin lightening alternatives to hydroquinone?

Recently we looked closely at the most famous of the whitening agents, hydroquinone – it’s the most studied and very effective, but has some serious (though often overstated) side effects, is irritating to the skin, and has been heavily restricted in some countries as well. Today let’s have a look at some of the other whitening agents on the market – how do they work, and what are the side effects?

The most commonly used topical treatments for treating hyperpigmentation are usually hydroquinone or retinoids, which are quite irritating to the skin. Therefore a lot of people turn to alternative whitening agents. Although many of these haven’t been studied extensively, they appear in many products and appear to be quite safe.

Note that clinical studies are almost always done on patients who have quite severe hyperpigmentation, such as melasmas and dyschromias – not the target audience of this post (if your hyperpigmentation is severe, you should discuss your specific situation and treatment options with a dermatologist). This means that the results mightn’t entirely translate to the mild freckling, acne scarring and sun damage that the average beauty junkie is looking to reduce.

How do lightening products work?

Whitening agents work in a number of different ways, and some work in more than one way. Lightening products generally slow down melanin production.

Most treatments for hyperpigmentation act on the first step of melanin synthesis – the conversion of tyrosine into DOPA and dopaquinone by an enzyme called tyrosinase. They can either:

(a)    act as a mimic of tyrosine, essentially keeping tyrosinase too busy to produce as much melanin as before (hydroquinone, mequinol, azelaic acid, arbutin, licorice extract)
(b)    block off the important copper ions in tyrosinase, preventing the enzyme from working (kojic acid, ascorbic acid)

Some other ways ingredients reverse or slow down hyperpigmentation are:

- slowing down the production of tyrosinase enzyme (N-acetylglucosamine)

- slowing down maturation of melanosomes (pigment producing organelles) (arbutin and derivatives)

- preventing melanin pigment from travelling from the melanocytes where it’s made, to the keratinocyte skin cells (soy, niacinamide, retinoids)

- dispersing pigment (licorice extract)

- increasing skin turnover, meaning there are more skin cells being produced, and less pigment to go around (alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinoids).

In general, side effects are less of a concern for the less effective ingredients; however, combining different whitening agents results in a more potent product without too much irritation.

Mequinol (4-hydroxyanisole)

Mequinol is the main alternative prescription alternative to hydroquinone. It’s also known as methoxyphenol, hydroquinone monomethyl ether, and p-hydroxyanisole. 

How it works: It’s not entirely clear how mequinol works, but it seems that it’s similar to hydroquinone in that it mimics tyrosine and decreases tyrosinase’s ability to make melanin pigment.

Strength: Mequinol usually comes at a concentration of 2%, sometimes in combination with 0.01% tretinoin and ascorbic acid to enhance penetration. It’s been found to be as effective as hydroquinone.
Irritation potential and side effects: It’s supposed to be less irritating than hydroquinone, but can sometimes cause temporary postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. There has also been some instances of reversible depigmentation. 


Retinoids are analogues of vitamin A, used for treating many conditions such as acne and sun damage, as well as acting as a penetration enhancer for other treatments. Examples include tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene and isotretinoin, as well as retinol, which is available over the counter.

How it works: Retinoids are thought to work in multiple ways to reduce pigmentation, including increasing skin turnover, interfering with transfer of melanin to the skin, reducing the amount of tyrosinase produced in the skin and dispersing melanin. Retinoids are usually used in combination with other treatments for hyperpigmentation – by themselves, they take several months to achieve results.

Strength: Commonly used strengths of retinoids vary according to the retinoid in question: tretinoin (0.05—0.1%), adapalene (0.1—0.3%), tazarotene (0.01—0.1%), retinol (up to 4%). They’re also commonly combined with corticosteroids to reduce irritation and the chances of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Irritation potential and side effects: Different retinoids have different irritation potential – in general, the more effective the retinoid, the more irritating and more side effects it will have. Retinoid irritation is common and leads to redness, dryness and peeling (which is also why it works well as a penetration enhancer). Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation is also a risk, especially in darker skin. Adapalene is one of the less irritating retinoids.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Artsy Wednesday: Easter

Happy Easter! Here's my mani for Artsy Wednesday - since I've been unpacking madly and working, I've kept it simple. It's one of the new ulta3 speckle polishes for Easter, Egg-cellent, a pretty pale green, with an accent nail of Essence Gold Digger, which was part of the Metal Glam collection I reviewed here.

I'll have more swatches of the ulta3 speckles up soon!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lush Easter goodies

Are you ready for chocolate season? If you're not in the mood yet, or you just hate chocolate (you infidel), Lush has an adorable range of bunny-themed products that will chase away your unseasonal Grinch.

The Golden Egg bath melt ballistic ($6.50) is a really cool new product that combines the skin-pampering of a bath melt with the fizzy fun of a bath bomb. The outer shell contains cocoa butter and olive oil for soft skin, and the whole thing smells like Honey I Washed the Kids and is covered in environmentally friendly shimmer. Supposedly when you use it, it sinks while the outside melts, but pops back up when the bath bomb is activated, but sadly due to a bathroom reno I don't have a bathtub to test this in.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Violet Box - March 2014 review

Sorry for the lack of Fact-check Friday last week - I spent Thursday and Friday flying halfway around the world back to Australia, and have been madly unpacking since. It will be back next Friday!

In the meantime, here's March's Violet Box. As far as I know, this is the first Violet Box where there's been different versions sent out - another version has a liquid lipstick instead of the nail polish.

Mirenesse Velvet Lip Lift Moisture Shine in Sweet Tart - Finally, a Mirenesse product I can use! I love this natural muted shade, it's versatile and would suit most people.

Sinful Colors Polish in Gogo Girl  - A lovely classic red creme.

Love Those Lashes Silk Strip Lashes in The Jade - I haven't seen false lashes in beauty boxes before, so this was a welcome surprise.

Starlooks Gem Pencil in Amethyst - A super sparkly metallic purple eye pencil. This is a brand I've never heard of and the quality seems quite good.

Acorelle Day & Night Fortifying Serum - A humectant-rich serum with lots of antioxidants.

I'm pretty pleased with this box - the last three products are from brands which I haven't had much exposure to, and the first two are good staple colours. I get annoyed when beauty boxes send out unpopular, bottom-of-the-barrel shades, and so far Violet Box hasn't disappointed in this department!

This product was provided for review, which did not affect my opinion. For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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