With new ‘wonder’ brighteners regularly hitting the market, it’s worth taking an objective look at what can realistically be expected from the nation’s most talked-about pigment-busting ingredients.
NiacinamideNiacinamide (vitamin B3) is an anti-inflammatory, a collagen and ceramide booster, and a melanin blocker among other things—all properties that contribute to pushing back hyperpigmentation. So it’s no surprise that it’s hailed as a star performer when it comes to discolouration in all skin tones.
Dermatologist Dr Emma Craythorne quotes clinical studies that show roughly 50 per cent improvement in melasma lesions when a concentration of 4 per cent niacinamide (a level widely available in cosmetics) is used—with none of the irritation associated with ‘gold standard’ prescription brightener hydroquinone.
Niacinamide also regulates sebum production so is a good choice for preventing post-inflammatory pigmentation in acne patients. Concentrations of up to 20 per cent B3 are available in cosmetics, but some warn that the risk of side effects increases at this level.
Tranexamic acidA relatively new kid on the block, tranexamic acid is a tyrosinase inhibitor, which means it slows the rate at which melanin is produced, decreasing pigmentation.
In melasma (the large, hormone-related pigmented areas that can be even harder to treat than smaller age spots), tranexamic acid is shown to reduce not just melanin clusters, but melasma-related redness and dilated veins as well.
According to Craythorne, oral tranexamic acid (as prescribed by a doctor) is the best course of action, but there is some clinical proof that a concentration of 2-3 per cent in a topical preparation can safely reduce pigmentation in all skin tones.
Skinceuticals Discolouration Defense Serum, £80, is formulated with 1.8 per cent tranexamic acid and 5 per cent niacinamide for a synergistic brightening effect.
Azelaic acidA go-to melasma buster for Craythorne, azelaic acid is an anti-inflammatory agent and tyrosinase inhibitor, blocking the transfer of pigment to skin’s surface cells, is “shown in randomised trials to be more effective than 2 per cent hydroquinone.”
But that is at a 20 per cent prescription concentration of azelaic acid – the highest level you can get in cosmetics is 10 per cent (The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, £5.50). This can still be effective, but results won’t show as fast as the one to two months quoted for the 20 per cent concentration.
Azelaic acid is also a chemical exfoliant—it works to fade pigmentation by sloughing off dead surface cells. It does so less aggressively than glycolic acid so is considered safe for sensitive skin and for treating acne and post-inflammatory pigmentation in all skin tones – but it should be used overnight.
Ascorbic acidActive vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) works as a potent antioxidant, inhibiting melanin formation by putting the brakes on the oxidation that leads to brown spots forming.
10-15 per cent l-ascorbic is a favourite of skin therapists and dermatologists as a daily cosmetic treatment as it doesn’t only brighten, but boosts collagen formation and can protect skin cell DNA as well.
One issue with ascorbic acid is that it’s very unstable, so you need it in the right formulation to ensure it doesn’t oxidise before it gets to your skin.
Either choose a serum that you mix up fresh right before use, such as Alumier EverActive C&E + Peptide, £149, or choose a stabilised ethylated l-ascorbic acid such as Sesderma C-Vit Liposomal Serum, £34.99.
Another drawback at high concentrations is that it can sting or cause rashes in some people; in that case, the lipid-soluble, stable vitamin c compound THD ascorbate (also called ascorbyl tetra-isopalmitate), as found in Medik8 C-Tetra Serum, £35, is a good, non-irritating alternative.
Consider teamworkBecause there are so many pathways to irregular pigmentation, many experts favour de-pigmentation serums that combine a number of melanin-busting actives all working in a slightly different way.
Dr Dennis Gross Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum, £99 and the aforementioned Skinceuticals Discolouration Defense are examples.
But whatever you do, if you don’t top your brightening potion with the right SPF every day, all your efforts will be fruitless. A broad-spectrum SPF50 featuring iron oxides such as Exuviance Skin Caring BB Fluid SPF50, £39, is the gold standard.