Do Natural Ingredients Work For Lightening Skin?

Pigmentation on your skin can be a recurrent and stubborn problem. My patients often report that pigmentation on their skin has led to negative impacts on their psychological well-being. While the market for cosmetics and concealers has mushroomed over the years, pigmentation that is untreated eventually darkens to the point where even cosmetics may fail to camouflage it adequately. Individuals who are active in sporting pursuits also find the option of covering their flaws with makeup not to be a viable option, hence the need for effective depigmentation options.

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While lasers and peels have been employed, and with quite some success in treating pigmentation, the mainstay of treating pigmentation remains topical therapy. Traditionally, hydroquinone has been the gold standard of treatment for hyperpigmentation for decades, but recent fears about the safety of hydroquinone has led to newer ingredients being employed for this purpose.

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The rise of the ‘natural ingredient’ trend has led many of my patients to seek out actives that are plant based to subdue this tricky skin condition. To understand how topical ingredients can show promise in lightening skin blemishes, firstly, we need to understand the three main types of skin pigmentation.

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#1 Melasma: A patchy brown discoloration that occurs on sun-exposed areas of the face and is commonly referred to as the “mask of pregnancy” because it often occurs during pregnancy. Melasma can appear in anyone, the condition is more common in dark skin. Women who are pregnant or women taking estrogen supplements or birth control pills are prone to melasma.

#2 Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: A condition in which an injury or inflammation to the skin from acne, eczema, or psoriasis causes increased pigment production resulting in dark spots. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is most common in people with darker skin tones.

#3 Sun Damage: Overexposure to the sun is another common cause of hyperpigmentation and is the leading cause of dark spots in light-skinned individuals. Sun exposure also can worsen melasma.


Natural Ingredients which have been used to treat hyperpigmentation include many of the ones listed below. Clinical studies involving the efficacy of natural ingredients showed that several natural ingredients did show promise in treating skin pigmentation. These include azelaic acid, soy, lignin peroxidase, ascorbic acid iontophoresis, arbutin, ellagic acid, licorice extracts, niacinamide, and mulberry.

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Soy, an ingredient derived from the soybean plant, is one of the most commonly used skin-lightening ingredients in moisturizers. It works by inhibiting the transfer of melanosomes (small “packages” of melanin) into the top layer of the skin, which causes skin darkening. Soy has also been shown to suppress additional pigment from coming to the surface of the skin.


Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, acts like soy by inhibiting the transfer of melanosomes into the skin’s upper layer. It is commonly used for its anti-pigment effects as well as its anti-aging properties.

Ellagic Acid

This is a natural substance derived from strawberries, cherries, and pomegranates so it does double duty as an antioxidant as well as inhibits an enzyme needed for melanin production.

Lignin Peroxidase

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Found in wood pulp, Lignin Peroxidase can lighten wood pulp when it breaks down. It comes from a fungus and can break down melanin in the skin.


Image result for arbutin

Arbutin is a natural derivative of hydroquinone derived from plants, including bearberry, blueberry, and cranberry. It is usually available in combination with other skin-lightening agents in over-the-counter cosmeceuticals. At concentrations of 3% or more, studies show that it can significantly lighten the skin.

Kojic Acid

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Kojic acid is an antioxidant derived from a fungus rather than a plant. Works by breaking down melanin in the skin and preventing its production in the skin. It is usually found found in cosmeceuticals in 1% to 4% concentrations either combined with other skin-lightening agents or by itself and has been to be effective in skin lightening according to clinical studies


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Derived from licorice root, liquirtin, a licorice extract has been shown to lighten skin.

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One word of advice for those who would like to use topical treatments to lighten their skin. Always consult your doctor who can help you separate fact from fiction. Even effective topical ingredients backed by science do not work overnight because it takes time and consistent use to produce a noticeable improvement. Your lifestyle may also play an important part in the eventual success and lightening of your skin. Use of sunscreen, not picking at your skin and minimizing inflammation (such as acne outbreaks) may tilt the balance in your favour when it comes to the pigmentation battle. Lastly and most importantly, if you are ordering products online, always choose a trusted source where you know exactly what active ingredients are in your serums or creams.

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1. Vashi NA, Kundu RV. Facial hyperpigmentation: causes and treatment. Br J Dermatol. 2013;169(Suppl 3):41–56. [PubMed] []

2. Farshi S. Comparative study of therapeutic effects of 20% azelaic acid and hydroquinone 4% cream in the treatment of melasma. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2011;10(4):282–287. [PubMed] []

3. Kircik LH. Efficacy and safety of azelaic acid (AzA) gel 15% in the treatment of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne: a 16-week, baseline-controlled study. J Drugs Dermatol. 2011;10(6):586–590. [PubMed] []

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5. Gillbro JM, Olsson MJ. The melanogenesis and mechanisms of skin-lightening agents–existing and new approaches. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2011;33(3):210–221. [PubMed] []

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8. Draelos ZD, Yatskayer M, Bhushan P, et al. Evaluation of a kojic acid, emblica extract, and glycolic acid formulation compared with hydroquinone 4% for skin lightening. Cutis. 2010;86(3):153–158. [PubMed] []

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