An Introduction to Skin Whitening Products

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The history of skin brightening goes way back. In Elizabethan times, women and men fought for a lighter skin tone with lead, vinegar, sulphur, alum or tin ash-based weapons. To them, the goal was simple — a brighter visage, which was a sign of good health and prestige.

Skin Whitening in Modern Times

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Fast forward more than 400 years later and, while not apparent at first, it’s becoming more and more clear that things haven’t changed as much as we’d want to believe.

Skin whitening is still “a thing”. And that’s not all. It has now become and industry, a trend and a big subject online and offline. The reasons have changed, according to our own social and cultural realities, but they haven’t changed too much. Skin whitening is still about how people see us. It’s as much about us as it is about others. It’s esthetic and it’s community-oriented.

Our big and bold contemporary advantage we have on the Elizabethans is knowledge. We are now more informed than ever. And this makes it easier to choose the right cosmetics. While back in the day, people had no choice but to stack layers of toxic lead on their skin, because they just didn’t know better, we now have access to ingredient lists, medical articles and beauty editorials.

Why We Still Choose Wrong

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But people still make mistakes. They still go for the wrong product. They still have a surprised look on their faces when someone informs them that their eye gel is cancer in a jar. And that’s because people need a little help sometimes. They need to be told time after time till they finally remember it.

With skin whitening, that rule thoroughly applies. This is why an introduction to the products used to brighten is so important.

How it Works

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Modern cosmetics use active ingredients to achieve lighter skin. Some of them are natural, some of them synthetic. But what they have in common is their ability to lessen the concentration of melanin (the pigment responsible for our skin tone). And that means age spots, freckles, birthmarks and moles as well as whole body, face or specific area lightening.

Some are better, some are worse. Some have little to no risks, while some are downright dangerous. And this is where knowledge comes in. This is where the good ones go to the left and the bad ones to the right.

Hydroquinone

By far the most popular skin whitening agent under the sun, Hydroquinone is also pretty popular in other types of cosmetics, such as moisturizers, hair conditioners or facial cleansers. Controversial like any celebrity should be, this active ingredient works wonders. It is a strong inhibitor of melanin and it’s considered to be the most powerful whitener out there.

While this might be true, there’s also a reverse to that coin. Besides the usual suspects — skin irritation, contact dermatitis, nail pigmentation or discoloration or cataract, the two biggest Hydroquinone-related scares are it’s association with cancer and ochronosis, a condition which is basically the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve — instead of whitened skin, you get dark patches which are almost impossible to reverse.

Kojic Acid

Part of the natural camp, Kojic Acid is derived from different species of fungus and it’s used in all sorts of skin whitening cosmetics — face creams, body lotions, sunscreen, even soaps. It’s so versatile mainly because of it’s longer than usual shelf life. While other skin brightening agents aren’t very stable, which renders them useless pretty quickly, Kojic Acid stands the test of time.

Not only can it last longer, but a cream infused with Kojic Acid is likely to work pretty well too. Studies show that adding this fungus-based ingredient to a whitening product increases its effectiveness.

As for side effects, Kojic Acid is safer than it’s older, more lab-oriented brother, Hydroquinone. Still, make sure to pay attention to your skin’s reaction. As with every type of cosmetics, there is a small risk of irritation or contact dermatitis. Also, keep in mind that skin that’s been whitened is more sensitive to those golden rays, so make a mental note to shield your body with sunblock every time you leave the house.

The Art of Choosing

Knowing what an active ingredient does and what is the first step to whitening your skin like a pro. But that’s not all the know-how you have to get a grip on. There’s also the issue of what goes where.

With brightening, face and body were not created equal. While the face needs extra care, knees and elbows need extra power. How about lips? Feet? The ever sensitive area around the eyes?

You guessed it — there’s a specific product for each one of those. And if you think you can open every door with the same key, you’re dead wrong. Find dedicated creams that are designed to work for the areas you apply them on. Use them according to instructions (surprising advice, right?). It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of caution to reach your whitening goal.

At the End of the Day

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Be brave. In the end, it takes a bit of courage to make a change, but it’s usually the people who take risks that make the history books. Ok, skin whitening isn’t really history-book worthy (well, maybe on a cultural level), but it can definitely be a changing point in your personal history. And — isn’t that right? — that’s the one we end up remembering after all those years.

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  • Lesley Maxey

    Thanks for this post. I have never heard of skin whitening before, but you bring up some great points. I was especially interested to learn that people have been trying to lighten their skin for over 400 years!

  • Priscilla S.

    Interesting article, especially for someone like me who is new to skin lightening. I was particularly surprised that people even used lead to lighten skin.