Monday, August 22, 2011

Lighten Up! An Up-to-the-Minute Primer on Managing Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is usually caused by a combination of hormones and sun exposure, but can also be a result of certain types of trauma to the skin, including acne breakouts after healing. Any of these factors can cause the skin to overproduce melanin (skin pigment) in an effort to protect the skin from further damage. If you’re interested in speeding up the rate that your skin pigmentation fades, it’s first helpful to understand the three different types of skin-lightening ingredients. This will help you make a decision about which type or types of lighteners will work best with your skin pigmentation and general health.

The first type of lightener is hydroquinone-based. Hydroquinone-based lighteners also include certain ingredients that are chemically analogous to hydroquinone, such as arbutin (sourced from uva ursi, or bearberry) and kojic acid (a fermentation byproduct of certain mushrooms). All of these ingredients have the same mechanism of action on the cellular level. Hydroquinone and its analogs are the same shape of molecule as an amino acid called tyrosine, which is processed by an enzyme called tyrosinase. Tyrosine is part of any normal diet, and is found in foods like soy protein, seaweed, and egg whites, to name a few. When tyrosinase breaks down tyrosine, the body uses tyrosine to make melanin, or skin pigment. By fitting into tyrosine receptors, hydroquinone functions as a tyrosinase inhibitor, preventing the body from using tyrosine to make melanin, and effectively shutting down the pigment factories found within the skin’s basal layer.

This image shows a protein fitting into a receptor, much as tyrosine fits into its receptor. Notice how the receptor releases a chemical when the protein locks into place: by replacing tyrosine with hydroquinone, we prohibit the receptor from releasing melanin. This receptor blockage is currently the only step of melanin production for which we have found such an effective process of inhibition.

The second type of lightener is exfoliant-based. Exfoliant-based lightening only works if A) you have first removed whatever is causing your excess pigmentation (for example, if you are no longer experiencing hormone fluctuation, UV-induced cellular mutations, or acne or other inflammatory skin conditions that may have been contributing to the production of excess pigment); or B) you have already shut down your pigment factories through the use of hydroquinone or another tyrosinase inhibitor. The reason this prerequisite is necessary is because exfoliants’ main action is to break down skin cells, thereby hastening the production of healthy new cells. When the skin cell turnover is accelerated through exfoliation without the interference of excess pigment-causing factors, the resulting cells contain only the normal amount of pigment: fresh, new skin!

[NB: While the primary benefit of retinoids to the skin is NOT their exfoliant properties, for the purpose of this article, you should understand retinoids to be included in the exfoliant category as supporters of skin lightening.]

Finally, there is also a third type of lightener. Peptide-based lighteners rely on the interaction of peptides, which are small chains of amino acids (like proteins), with cells in the skin’s deep tissue layers. Several peptides that have only recently been synthesized in labs have been shown to have remarkable skin lightening properties. In particular, palmitoyl oligopeptide-68 seems to derive its efficacy from its ability to both prevent the synthesis of melanin and stimulate the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid, which aid in cell repair and reduce inflammation. One of palmitoyl oligopeptide-68’s most important functions is to mimic TGF-Beta (Transforming Growth Factor Beta) proteins. These proteins are vital to cell health throughout the body, as they are responsible for regulating crucial cell activities (like telling cells when to die so that they don’t become cancerous)! This is where the mad science comes in: though scientists know TGF-Beta’s basic functions, they haven’t yet discovered all of its cellular pathways. So palmitoyl oligopeptide-68 was successfully synthesized to mimic TGF-Beta, but we don’t know exactly how it works!

Regardless of the mystery, the benefits offered by a skin lightener that can both inhibit tyrosinase, as hydroquinone-based lighteners do, and stimulate cell turnover, as exfoliant-based lighteners do, cannot be denied. By using this dual-function approach to skin lightening, we can attain results previously only available through the use of both a hydroquinone and an exfoliant-based lightener, with less irritation and within a much shorter time period. Peptide-based lighteners are also a great solution for those who cannot use hydroquinone-based lighteners because of pregnancy or nursing concerns. Certain persistent pigmentation will still require the use of hydroquinone; likewise, on some skin, embedded pigmentation will linger unless treated with alpha hydroxy acids, usually in the form of peels. Nonetheless, we consider this an incredible new low-impact addition to our skin-lightening arsenal, and one that many clients, especially those who haven’t tolerated other lighteners in the past, may wish to explore.

Don't forget to tell us which lightener you'd like to try in the comments for a chance to win a bottle!  Winners will be notified by email on Friday, August 26, 2011.

As always, you can text or call the Skin Studio with any questions or concerns at 504-717-4466; or, click here to schedule your next appointment!


  1. I'm 36 and had my 1st facial about a year ago at skin studio. Since I moved back to the states after living in Central America for 3years, I'm beginning to see (sun-damage?) darker pigmentation above my lip--it's dreadful and looks like a faint mustache is developing! I've used tri Luna for the last yr and a half or so, but it's only managed to keep it from getting DARKER. I'd love to give a new approach a try!

  2. The peptide-based lightener sounds interesting because of the fact that it works in the deep layers of the skin. But, I have very stubborn melasma so maybe I should stick with the hydroquinone and an exfoliant-based lightener. The success i have had correcting my melasma is mostly due to Christine's knowledge and skills. Love her!

  3. Gina and kcvdf, congratulations! You are the winners of our HydroPeptide Even Out and Vivant Bleaching Cream. Unfortunately, we have no contact information for you (uh oh)! Please send an email with your name and phone number to so we can get your prizes to you. :)