Hoping to lighten up scarring, freckles or dark spots on your skin? You may have heard that hydroquinone—a brightening agent—is strong enough to get the job done. And while it’s true that it’s a powerful and effective skincare ingredient, some dermatologists are concerned about its side effects and long-term effects from use.
That worry has led to a new wave in natural skin care lightening alternatives. (You may have noticed that botanicals and vitamin C are buzzing these days.) Here’s a look at some natural alternatives and what they can do for your skin.
Why you should consider a natural approach to lightening
Chemical brightening agents like hydroquinone work by blocking key enzymes along the melanin (pigment) producing pathway in the body. But about five years ago, researchers began questioning the safety of hydroquinone because users were at risk for developing ochronosis, a condition that (ironically) darkens the skin.
“Hydroquinone is one of the most researched and studied lightening agents, but can cause severe irritation and hyperpigmentation if not used correctly,” explains Dr. Michele Green, board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor in New York City. Plus, it was banned in the E.U. because it contains carcinogens, which may increase the risk for cancer.
Those side effects are enough to have some doctors concerned, explains Dr. Robin Evans, board-certified dermatologist at Southern Connecticut Dermatology. “Safety concerns have been limiting the use of hydroquinone, pushing the prevalence of newer hydroquinone-free lightening agents,” she explains. “These products can help with brightening, smoothing the skin and exfoliating, which will brighten and will have some minimal effects on lightening. They can also help with pigmentary problems like melasma.”
Natural alternatives to hydroquinone
If you’re ready to go au natural to brighten up your skin, consider the following ingredients.
Your favorite tropical fruit may help brighten your skin, too. “Papaya contains alpha hydroxy acids, which are effective in cell turnover and exfoliation,” Green says. “And papain (an enzyme found in papaya) exfoliates the skin, giving you a lighter, brighter complexion.”
You can find papaya and papain in many products these days, including cleansers, peels, masks and exfoliating scrubs. It is generally considered safe (follow product directions for use). But always test it on your skin first to confirm you aren’t allergic and won’t have a bad reaction.
Evans says natural brighteners may not be as effective as Hydroquinone 4 cream when it comes to lightening, but are worth a try if you are worried about its side effects. “Ingredients that encourage cell turnover and peeling, inhibit melanin production or protect from the sun will all be helpful in lightening the skin to some degree,” she says. “Most important, they can help prevent further darkening of the skin.”
Just keep in mind that the above ingredients can come with side effects of their own—irritation, inflammation and peeling. Work with your dermatologist to determine which products are safe for your skin.