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The Unblemished Truth About Skin Whiteners and Dark Spot Correctors

When Lady Macbeth famously exclaimed, “Out, dam’d spot!,” she wasn’t referring to skin issues like freckles, sunspots, moles, and residual acne scar
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When Lady Macbeth famously exclaimed, “Out, dam’d spot!,” she wasn’t referring to skin issues like freckles, sunspots, moles, and residual acne scars. While the Lady’s concern was more of the figurative sort, the beauty industry has been tasked with outing those of the literal kind, resulting in a slew of dark spot correctors hitting the U.S. market over the past couple of years. On the Sephora site alone, there are 42 dark spot correctors available for purchase.

In Asia, lightening and brightening products like dark spot correctors have been a beauty staple for years. Shiseido’s White Lucent, which became more widely available in the United States this year, was just launching when I visited Japan in 2005 for a study abroad trip.

My childhood summers were spent in Asia, where people often seek refuge from the sticky, humid heat by visiting generously air conditioned, multi-floor department stores, where idle browsing is encouraged. The premiere floor of these stores is always devoted to prestige beauty brands, which tailor their traditional offerings to suit the local market. This means that every Asian beauty brand, regardless of origin, has a separate “whitening” product line. Dior has Dior Snow, Chanel has White Essentiel, and Estee Lauder has Cyberwhite. When you visit makeup counters in Asia to be matched for a foundation shade, Asian counter makeup artists ask, “Would you prefer a natural or lighter look?” as it isn’t uncommon for people to choose to use a foundation number that is one or two lighter than their “actual” shade.

As we all know, the cultural debate of what qualifies as “desirable” skin color, in beauty terms, is fraught with racial implications.

Anthropologically, I don’t know exactly why paler skin or avoidance to sun exposure is considered an Asian beauty ideal (although I have my suspicions) any more than why the desire for tan skin caused Tanning Mom to overdose on tanning beds.

A high-level cosmetic executive once told me that the roots of the pale skin Asian beauty ideal have more to do with a desire for unblemished skin, since aging manifests on Asian skin with spots, rather than wrinkles. When I repeated this theory to Dr. Anne Chapas, board certified dermatologist and Medical Director of Union Square Dermatology, she agreed that it makes sense. People who have darker complexions tend to have more melanin in their skin. “They have so much natural melanin in the skin, they don’t get the sun damage that cause wrinkles. Sun damage causes more uneven pigmentation," she told us. "It’s not unusual to see someone of Asian, Latin, or African American descent come to see me and tell me that as they’re getting older, their skin is more pigmented and they’re looking for something to even it out.” Looking at the perennially unlined face of my 85-year-old grandmother, I’m inclined to agree.

Calling these Asian-specific lines “whitening” is a bit of a misnomer, since these products aren’t actually skin bleaching products, but rather they brighten and add radiance. Case in point: The main ingredient in Kiehl’s Whitening line, available in Australia and Asia, is Vitamin C, a staple in dark spot corrector formulations.

Despite the differences between Asian and Western beauty ideals, there is some overlap in ingredients between Asian brightening lines and stateside dark spot correctors. Here’s a simple who, what, why, and how behind dark spot correctors and how to make sure you’re buying the right one, no matter where you do it:

Why: The difficulty in figuring out whether a dark spot corrector will work is that not every dark spot is the same, so there isn’t a universal solution. Dark spots are caused by the deposition of pigment or melanin, created by melanocytes, which are cells found in the top layer of skin. In response to sun exposure, hormones, or other kinds of environmental insults, melanin is produced to protect the skin against the offending agent.

Age or sunspots as well as freckles are caused by the insult of sun exposure. Dr. Meghan O’Brien, Consulting Dermatologist for Physician’s Formula, confirms that dark marks left over from acne are caused by the inflammation that occurs in an acne bump when it is active.

Who: Dyspigmentation and acne spots tend to respond well to over-the-counter products, like dark spot correctors. Age spots, sunspots, and freckles respond better to other treatment, like lasers.

How: When buying a dark spot corrector, both Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Chapas agree that you want to look for ingredients like hydroquinone, kojic acid (derived from mushrooms), niacinamide, arbutin, alpha hydroxy acid, retinol, and vitamin C (especially at high levels--studies show that it’s especially effective at levels of 15%.)

“When I’m prescribing for pigmentation, I’m always thinking about blocking the different pathways in which pigmentation is formed," Dr.Chapas said. "One of the first stimuli [to pigmentation] is sun exposure. I make sure [my patients] are wearing an SPF of 30 or higher to block what is causing the melanin production.”

The next treatment step is blocking the enzymes that create the melanin, such as tyrosinase, using hydroquinone and kojic acid. After that, look for things that will actually break down the pigmentation. Dr. Chapas recommends a product called Elure, which has a special enzyme that breaks down formed pigmentation. What’s also effective is to exfoliate away the excess pigment, using retinol, glycolic acid, or lactic acid.

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The much-maligned hydroquinone, one of the oldest treatments for skin lightening and the ingredient reportedly responsible for Michael Jackson's “bleached” look, is actually okay in small amounts. It’s available in 2% formulations over the counter or 4% by prescription and is effective in blocking the main pathways for melanocytes. “Unfortunately, there have been a lot of questions about how safe it is. At higher doses, it’s harmful to cells and actually causes cell death,” Dr. Chapas warns. Hydroquinone still remains the only ingredient recognized as a “lightening agent” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) Mercury should always be avoided.

Oh, and like many other skin-related treatments, it can take up to three months to see long-term results.

What: So now that you know everything you ever wanted to and more about dark spot correctors, here are our picks, which contain several of the ingredients mentioned by the experts we spoke to.

Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector: The best thing about Kiehl’s products is that the ingredient list is never like a flashback to AP Biology. The ingredients listed are always natural elements that you might have read Elnora harvesting in A Girl of the Limberlost.

The star ingredient here is activated Vitamin C, which works to improve skin tone and clarity. Supporting ingredients white birch and peony extract work in tandem with the Vitamin C to restore collagen and facilitate discoloration correction. Applied via an eyedropper method, you can drop the formulation directly upon targeted areas.

Kiehl's, $49.50

Clinique Dark Spot Corrector: The gold standard in dark spot correctors, this is by far the best-reviewed product on the Sephora site with over 1,500 reviews and it's also a best seller in Asia. Looking through the ingredient list, ascorbic glucoside, a stable form of Vitamin C is 7th listed.

The other main ingredient is the proprietary CL-302 complex, which reverses the appearance of dark spots. As Dr. Chapas suggests above, Clinique’s dark spot corrector also inhibits the appearance of pigment formation and uses salicylic acid and glucosamine to breaks down the appearance of melanin through gentle exfoliation.

Sephora, $49.50

Murad Rapid Age Spot Pigment Lightening Serum: Small amount of hydroquinone (2%), check. Glycolic acid, check. As Mrs. Vogel of EBHS will attest, I’m no scientist, but even I can see that this product’s ingredient list contains two of the “yes” elements that both our dermatologists deem effective in lightening dark spots.

Through my informal perusal of the Sephora site, this appears to also be the only one of the 42 dark spot correctors listed that contains hydroquinone.

Sephora, $60

Proactiv Solution Dark Spot Corrector: Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Justin Beiber-endorsed Proactiv also has a dark spot corrector serum that contains 2% hydroquinone, along with Vitamin C and A. It's all the most economical of the bunch.

DiscoverProactiv, $22.00