9 Natural Brightening Alternatives to Hydroquinone

BY Jane Chertoff · July 23, 2019

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Hoping to lighten up scarring, freckles or dark spots on your skin? You may have heard that hydroquinone—a brightening agent—is strong enough to get the job done. And while it’s true that it’s a powerful and effective skincare ingredient, some dermatologists are concerned about its side effects and long-term effects from use.

That worry has led to a new wave in natural skin care lightening alternatives. (You may have noticed that botanicals and vitamin C are buzzing these days.) Here’s a look at some natural alternatives and what they can do for your skin.

Why you should consider a natural approach to lightening

Chemical brightening agents like hydroquinone work by blocking key enzymes along the melanin (pigment) producing pathway in the body. But about five years ago, researchers began questioning the safety of hydroquinone because users were at risk for developing ochronosis, a condition that (ironically) darkens the skin.

“Hydroquinone is one of the most researched and studied lightening agents, but can cause severe irritation and hyperpigmentation if not used correctly,” explains Dr. Michele Green, board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor in New York City. Plus, it was banned in the E.U. because it contains carcinogens, which may increase the risk for cancer.

Those side effects are enough to have some doctors concerned, explains Dr. Robin Evans, board-certified dermatologist at Southern Connecticut Dermatology. “Safety concerns have been limiting the use of hydroquinone, pushing the prevalence of newer hydroquinone-free lightening agents,” she explains. “These products can help with brightening, smoothing the skin and exfoliating, which will brighten and will have some minimal effects on lightening. They can also help with pigmentary problems like melasma.”

Natural alternatives to hydroquinone

If you’re ready to go au natural to brighten up your skin, consider the following ingredients.

1. Licorice

“Licorice root contains two ingredients that help with pigmentation: glabridin and liquiritin,” explains Green. “Glabridin helps to retrain tyrosinase, an enzyme that produces melanin which leads to pigmentation. Liquiritin helps to break up and remove melanin and pigmentation in the skin.”

In addition to helping with dark spots, licorice can be soothing and help even out your skin tone. Look for it in products like serums and use daily for best results.

Find it in: Eminence Organic Skin Care Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum

2. Kojic Acid

Kojic acid is derived from mushroom-like fungi during fermentation, and is the second most common natural lightening agent, Green says. “It prohibits the production of melanin and penetrates the upper layers of the skin causing a lightening effect.”

You can find kojic acid in serums and depigmentation cream. Unfortunately, it can cause some side effects like redness and irritation. Always use a low-dose (1 percent) version and test it on your skin first before use.

Find it in: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense dedbqxrueqcqxqyxzdyryc

3. Arbutin

“Arbutin is a natural form of hydroquinone derived from the bearberry plant,” Green says. “It is a safer and effective alternative to hydroquinone and is less cytotoxic to the melanocytes.” Look for arbutin in brightening face lotions and dark-spot correctors. Use it gradually in the first few weeks to make sure your skin doesn’t react negatively. You can then increase the frequency of use. Also, as always, make sure you are wearing sunscreen.

And even though it’s considered natural, avoid arbutin if you are pregnant because it is a derivative of hydroquinone, says Evans. (The effects of arbutin haven’t been studied, but hydroquinone is not considered pregnancy-safe.)

Find it in: Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream

4. Mulberry Extract

Mulberry extract is a natural but powerful brightening agent derived from the mulberry plant, explains Dr. Erum Ilyas, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Amber Noon in Pennsylvania. “Mulberry plants have several compounds that have been extracted from both roots and stems, with known ability to block tyrosinase, the enzyme involved in the production of a skin pigment called melanin,” she explains.

Some studies have shown mulberry extract to be as powerful as kojic acid (see above)—another common natural brightener. If your skin doesn’t agree with kojic acid, or is sensitive, Ilyas says that mulberry extract is generally well tolerated and won’t likely cause irritation.

Find it in: PCA Skin Vitamin b3 Brightening Serum 


5. Niacinamide

“Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, can be used to fade age spots and lighten discoloration of the skin,” Green says. “It’s effective with hyperpigmentation because it decreases the number of melanin transferred to pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) to skin cells by more than half. It doesn’t stop the production of melanin, but it reduces the amount that is transferred to the skin.”

What’s more, she says, it is extremely stable and not affected by heat or light like other chemical ingredients. Niacinamide is found in serums and boosters that are usually considered safe to use daily.

Find it in: SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum

6. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another popular brightening alternative found in many brightening serums. “Vitamin C is an amazing antioxidant that is beneficial for patients with hyperpigmentation,” says Green. “It works by brightening hyperpigmented spots on the skin, but not lightening normal skin.” What’s more, she says it can help to create the healthy, glowing skin you’re after.

Green says to avoid vitamin C if you have allergies or sensitive skin, though. It can cause redness, irritation and tingling.

Find it in: Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%

7. Willow Bark Extract

“Willow bark extract is a beta hydroxy acid that helps to exfoliate the skin and encourage cell turnover,” Evans explains. That’s because it’s related to salicylic acid, Green adds. “White Willow Bark extract is composed of salicin, the natural form of salicylic acid,” she says. “Salicylic acid helps to shed dead skin cells from your skin to allow new and healthy skin cells to regenerate.”

You can find willow bark extract in spot treatments, serums and exfoliating peels. Some of the products like spot treatments can be used daily, while exfoliating peels should only be used once or twice a week.

Find it in: iS Clinical White Lightening Complex

8. Lactic Acid

If you have sensitive skin or are just looking for something mild, products containing lactic acid may be what you need. “Lactic acid is derived from sour milk and is an alpha hydroxy acid, so it is one of the mildest ingredients you can use for skin lightening,” Green explains. “Gentle enough for sensitive skin, lactic acid penetrates the skin causing mild exfoliation. It’s also a melanin suppressor.”

She notes that because it decreases your melanin production, you should wear sunscreen and protective clothing to protect the treated areas from sun damage.

Find it in: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum

9. Papaya/Papain

Your favorite tropical fruit may help brighten your skin, too. “Papaya contains alpha hydroxy acids, which are effective in cell turnover and exfoliation,” Green says. “And papain (an enzyme found in papaya) exfoliates the skin, giving you a lighter, brighter complexion.”

You can find papaya and papain in many products these days, including cleansers, peels, masks and exfoliating scrubs. It is generally considered safe (follow product directions for use). But always test it on your skin first to confirm you aren’t allergic and won’t have a bad reaction.

Find it in: Jan Marini Skin Zyme

Bottom line

Evans says natural brighteners may not be as effective as hydroquinone when it comes to lightening, but are worth a try if you are worried about its side effects. “Ingredients that encourage cell turnover and peeling, inhibit melanin production or protect from the sun will all be helpful in lightening the skin to some degree,” she says. “Most important, they can help prevent further darkening of the skin.”

Just keep in mind that the above ingredients can come with side effects of their own—irritation, inflammation and peeling. Work with your dermatologist to determine which products are safe for your skin.

Jane Chertoff

Jane Chertoff

Jane is a freelance lifestyle writer whose work has appeared on Brit + Co, Romper, HelloGiggles, Yahoo Health, Realtor.com and more. She is a marathon runner, dog lover and aspiring world traveler. Check out more of her work Read More >

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