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Best Skin-Lightening Products

When sun- or hormone-induced brown skin discolorations appear, your best treatment option is a well formulated skin-lightening product (along with diligent use of a sunscreen rated SPF 25 or greater. In order to make the Best Products list, a skin-lightening product must:

  • Contain the active ingredient hydroquinone or other skin lightening ingredients with research supporting their efficacy on skin
  • Be packaged to protect the active ingredients from light and air exposure which cause them to break down and become ineffective
  • Contain antioxidants, smoothing, and soothing ingredients to enhance skin health
  • Contain minimal to no fragrance
  • Not contain irritating ingredients such as alcohol

The skin-lightening products on this list either contain the time-proven, safe skin-lightening agent hydroquinone or they contain ingredients related to it, such as arbutin or other agents that research (however limited) has shown hold some promise for lightening sun- or hormone-induced brown spots. In some instances, skin lightening products with stabilized vitamin C are also worth considering.

Some of these skin-lightening products also contain an AHA or BHA at the correct pH for exfoliation to occur. The synergistic combination of hydroquinone and an AHA or BHA exfoliant not only allows the hydroquinone to work better but also helps remove layers of uneven, sun-damaged skin (and those with BHA can help keep breakouts and blackheads at bay, so it's a double bonus).

Hydroquinone has become a controversial ingredient, despite considerable research demonstrating its safety when properly formulated (meaning following over-the-counter guidelines rather than adulterating products with compounds that can cause skin problems).  For detailed information about this gold standard skin-lightening agent, please refer to our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary.

Over-the-counter hydroquinone products are available in strengths of 1% to 2%; higher concentrations are available from dermatologists and plastic surgeons.

Keep in mind that no skin-lightening product will work if you don't use an effective sunscreen daily. Also, if you're using any over-the-counter product with hydroquinone and you haven't noticed any skin-lightening results after three months of daily use (plus daily use of a well-formulated sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater), you should discontinue use. If this occurs, it is very likely that, for whatever reason, over-the-counter strengths of hydroquinone are not effective for you. You can try prescription-strength hydroquinone or consider various laser or light-emitting treatments from a dermatologist.

For best results, apply your skin lightening product to affected areas twice daily, after cleansing and before applying moisturizer and/or serum and sunscreen (which should always go on last).

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