Although most popular in Asia, skin lightening agents are found over the counter and in prescription form worldwide. These agents are often used for generalized lightening of the skin or for localized lightening of dark spots from aging, melasma, or post-inflammation/injury of the skin.
There are numerous active ingredients that can be used in skin lightening agents, either as the sole ingredient or in combination with other ingredients. One of the more popular and effective ingredients is hydroquinone, which can be found over the counter in up to a 2% formulation. Stronger formulations require a prescription. Hydroquinone blocks pigment formation in cells. However, hydroquinone should not be used chronically, as it can lead to the reverse effect of irreversible skin darkening. In combination with a retinoid and hydrocortisone, hydroquinone has been observed to be even more effective as a lightening agent.
Vitamin C has also been used as a skin lightening ingredient, although its efficacy may not be as pronounced as hydroquinone. Vitamin C has the added benefit of being an antioxidant, which protects the skin from damaging UV radiation.
Kojic acid is another ingredient used for skin lightening and is found in many over the counter products. Kojic acid is derived from a fungus and inhibits pigment production.
This is only a partial list of the main skin lightening ingredients. Most importantly, the role of sun avoidance and protection cannot be overemphasized as part of the regimen in skin lightening.