Monday, December 5, 2011

Alternatives to Hydroquinone (Skin Lighteners)

Alternatives to Hydroquinone (Skin Lighteners)
A growing body of evidence appears to prove what we already know: a woman with smooth flawless skin is judged to be more attractive than one with wrinkles and age spots. While this may seem like a no-brainer, research continues in the area of evolutionary psychology to try to understand exactly how humans define and perceive beauty. Previous studies have already shown that aspects of facial features, such as symmetry, affect the perception of beauty. But recent research indicates humans are also very sensitive to signs of uneven skin coloration in women as an indicator of age and health, and judge attractiveness accordingly.

Age spots, freckles and melasma, discoloration due to hormonal changes, all contribute to uneven skin tone. Most types of skin discoloration are due to hyperpigmentation, or the increased concentration and aggregation of melanin. Skin lighteners can inhibit this process, and over time, return the skin to its natural tone. Note that I refer to skin lighteners here, not bleaches, which can leave behind unsightly white patches. The newest generation of skin products aimed at treating skin discoloration are milder and safer. One caveat: sun exposure exacerbates most hyperpigmentation conditions, so for maximum results, one must also liberally use sunscreen.

Prior to using any skin lightening product, be sure to have any new skin changes evaluated by a doctor to make sure they are not caused by a more serious disorder.

Everyone is familiar with the effects of increased melanin production. A tan, after all, is merely the result of increased melanin production in response to sun exposure. Melanin is produced by cells known as melanocytes, which in turn are activated by the enzyme tyrosinase. Hydroquinone, a tyrosinase inhibitor, has traditionally been used to treat hyperpigmentation. However, in recent years, hydroquinone use has become controversial, since studies in rodents have shown it to be potentially carcinogenic. Hydroquinone has been banned in several countries, and the FDA has moved to limit its use. Depending on the outcome of ongoing studies, hydroquinone may end up being either available only by prescription or removed entirely from the market.

Other tyrosinase inhibitors related to hydroquinone are available, such as arbutin and deoxyarbutin, which are thought to be safer. But many compounds unrelated to hydroquinone also affect tyrosinase, and these are increasingly being incorporated into skin lightening treatments. These ingredients can come from a wide variety of sources. For example, both kojic and azelaic acid are obtained from microorganisms, and aloesin, resveratrol, and licorice extract from plants. The compound 1-methylhydantoin-2-imide is amino acid derivative, and vitamins B, C and E come from a variety of sources.

Another way to affect hyperpigmentation is to prevent the transfer of melanin to the surface of the skin. Both soymilk and soybean extracts have skin lightening properties and are thought to work this way. Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, in addition to reducing hyperpigmentation also affects sebum production, redness and wrinkles. The peptides palmitoyl oligopeptide and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7 also have multiple beneficial effects in addition to lightening the skin.

Skin hyperpigmentation can also be mitigated to some extent by increased skin exfoliation. Some of the most common exfoliation agents are alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids. However, the choice of a particular hydroxy acid is important, since they too can have multiple benefits. In particular, glycolic, salicylic and retinoic acids have all been shown to inhibit tyrosinase as well as promoting exfoliation.

Which of these ingredients are best? That question turns out to be complicated for several reasons. First, the price range for the products is wide and the novelty of the active ingredient can have little to do with price. For example, one product with an eye-popping price of $115 for 1 ounce contains a form of ubiquinone, or coenzyme Q10, which was discovered in 1958. Second, almost all newer products contain not just one of the aforementioned compounds but usually several. And lastly, the precise function and effectiveness of the myriad of botanical extracts found in skin brighteners can be difficult to discern.

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