- But first, a word about sunscreen
- Second, a word about speaking to your doctor
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Vitamin C
- Glycolic acid
- Kojic acid
- Azelaic acid
- Phenylethyl resorcinol (SymWhite® 377)
- Tranexamic acid
- Tetrapeptide-30 (TEGO® Pep 4-Even)
- Licorice extract
- Tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E)
- The best skin care ingredients for treatment melasma are in the best products
Melasma, a common skin condition characterized by dark patches and discoloration, can be a persistent and frustrating problem for many individuals. While there is no definitive cure for melasma, the right skincare ingredients can significantly improve its appearance and manage its symptoms. In this article, we will explore the best skin care ingredients for treating melasma. These ingredients have proven effective in addressing melasma and helping individuals achieve clearer, more even-toned skin.
But first, a word about sunscreen
If you have melasma, it should be obvious by now that this condition won’t go away without regular use of sunscreen. Since all hyperpigmentation is exacerbated by UV exposure, sun protection is all the more important when treating melasma.
Not only that, but many of the ingredients used in skin care products to treat melasma also make the skin extra sensitive to light. This means that, if you use these products without also using sunscreen, your skin discolouration could get worse!
Apart from applying a broad-spectrum, high SPF sunscreen every two hours (even on cloudy days, and when indoors), you should also avoid direct sunlight. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, UV protective glasses and seek shaded areas. Long sleeves and covered clothing is also important.
Try in our shop:
Even Up® Clinical Pigment Perfector® SPF 50 by Colorescience®
(Tinted sunscreen + hyperpigmentation treatment in one)
Second, a word about speaking to your doctor
If you have melasma, it is crucial to speak with a doctor about your condition, before attempting to use ingredients listed below to lighten your skin.
If you have other conditions, or are taking medications, you may need to steer clear of some of the ingredients listed below.
Likewise if you are pregnant, you should avoid certain ingredients, even if they are sold over the counter.
Doctors can also help guide you on the right path to treating melasma in a more systematic way. It is unlikely that one ingredient will be the ‘magic bullet’ to treat your melasma. It is a tough skin condition to tackle; it often requires mixed-modalities to lighten hyperpigmented skin.
Hydroquinone has long been regarded as the “gold standard” in treating melasma. It is a potent skin-lightening agent that works by inhibiting the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin coloration.
By reducing the amount of melanin produced in melasma-affected areas, hydroquinone helps fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation associated with this skin condition.
Hydroquinone is available in various strengths, with 2% being the most common over-the-counter concentration and 4% or higher available through prescription.
However, hydroquinone has gotten a bad rep over the years due to its cancer-causing potential in higher doses. The government of Canada prohibits selling hydroquinone in concentrations over 2% without a prescription. It has declared this ingredient as ”toxic.”
This is why many consumers and doctors seek alternative skin lightening ingredients to tackle issues like melasma.
You should especially avoid hydroquinone if you are pregnant.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, are chemical exfoliants that help slough off dead skin cells and promote skin cell turnover. By removing the top layers of dead skin, these acids can aid in fading melasma spots to reveal fresher, more evenly toned skin underneath. AHAs are often desired over physical exfoliants, since they can be gentler when their concentrations are low.
AHAs can also enhance the penetration of other skincare ingredients, making them more effective when used in combination treatments.
Popular AHAs used in skin care for hyperpigmentation include:
- Phytic acid – an antioxidant that can help fight free radical damage. It is used in skin lightening products for this reason.
- Lactic acid – derived from milk, this is a very gentle AHA. It acts as an exfoliator and cell regenerator, to brighten skin.
- Glycolic acid – one of the most popular AHAs for treating melasma, this ingredient has its own section in this article. See below for more info.
- Kojic acid – another very popular ingredient for treating melasma, it is also discussed in more detail below.
However, you don’t need to limit your skin care ingredients to the above list. Almost all AHAs act in similar ways and are generally thought to be beneficial for exfoliative skin care. They can also be used alongside the only beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which is salicylic acid.
Just be careful not to over-exfoliate your skin. This can create inflammation that leads to more hyperpigmentation. For that reason, ensure the concentrations of AHAs and BHAs that you use are made to be gentle on the skin. Be careful when combining AHAs and BHAs with other strong exfoliants, such as retinoids (discussed below).
Try in our shop:
AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser by SkinMedica®
(With biodegradable jojoba spheres)
Vitamin C is not only a potent antioxidant but also an effective skin-brightening agent. As an antioxidant, it helps neutralize free radicals that can worsen melasma. Moreover, vitamin C inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for melanin production.
By curbing melanin production and reducing oxidative stress, vitamin C can assist in lightening dark spots caused by melasma and provide a more even skin tone.
Vitamin C is highly unstable in its natural form. It often needs to be formulated into derivatives that won’t easily degrade in light, oxygen or heat. This is why you won’t normally see the term “vitamin C” on ingredients lists. Instead, look for terms like “ascorbic acid” or “Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate,” among others.
Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is an increasingly popular skincare ingredient due to its multifunctional benefits. For melasma, it helps decrease the transfer of melanin to skin cells, thereby reducing hyperpigmentation.
Additionally, niacinamide strengthens the skin’s natural barrier, reducing sensitivity and inflammation, which can be beneficial for those with melasma-prone skin.
Retinoids, derived from vitamin A, are renowned for their acne-fighting and anti-aging properties. They also treat and prevent hyperpigmentation and melasma. The most popular retinoid is retinol. And, the strongest retinol is called “tretinoin.” This is usually what is prescribed for acne and melasma sufferers.
Retinoids work by blocking tyrosinase, removing pigmented cells, increasing cell turnover and promoting collagen production, leading to smoother, more even-toned skin.
However, retinoids can cause initial irritation. It’s essential to start with a lower concentration and gradually build up to minimize potential side effects.
Do not use retinoids if you are pregnant.
Try in our shop:
Retinol Complex 1, 0.5 or 0.25 by SkinMedica®
(Proven, medically-researched retinol)
Glycolic acid is used in clinical settings as a chemical peel solution in higher concentrations when treating melasma. It can also be combined with tretinoin or other ingredients, for this purpose.
However, glycolic acid can also be found in daily skin care products targeting the treatment of melasma. In these circumstances, it is used in much lower concentrations.
Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane. It works by dissolving the top layers of skin, to help get rid of pigmented cells.
Glycolic acid came under debate in 2020 when a popular YouTuber, Doctor V, pointed out that glycolic acid has the potential to burn skin that is already prone to hyperpigmentation. Doctor V explained that glycolic acid has a small molecule size. This can cause it to penetrate the skin quickly. Due to this, people with skin of colour need to be extra careful when using it.
That said, glycolic acid can be used safely under the direction of a doctor or professional aesthetician.
Try in our shop:
Starting Up/Face® Wash by PRESCRIBED solutions®
(Glycolic Anti-Oxidant Cleanser)
Kojic acid is a naturally occurring compound derived from a species of fungi. It acts as a tyrosinase inhibitor, effectively blocking melanin production and lightening dark spots.
Kojic acid is gentle on the skin, making it suitable for individuals with melasma and sensitive skin at the same time.
Azelaic acid is a versatile ingredient with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps regulate melanin production while reducing redness and inflammation associated with melasma. Moreover, azelaic acid is safe for long-term use, making it an excellent option for managing melasma over time.
Azelaic acid has been shown to be more effective for melasma when used alongside retinol.
Phenylethyl resorcinol (SymWhite® 377)
Also known as SymWhite® 377, phenylethyl resorcinol is considered a newer skin lightener. In clinical studies, it showed promise as a pigment inhibitor in the skin and hair, even outperforming kojic acid. It is also a gentle antioxidant and can help reduce inflammation.
Try in our shop:
Lytera® 2.0 Pigment Brightening Serum by SkinMedica®
(Hydroquinone-free skin lightener)
Originally used to prevent bleeding, tranexamic acid has also been studied as a replacement for hydroquinone when treating melasma. It is usually used topically at first. If a patient does not respond to topical tranexamic acid, it can be prescribed as an oral medication for melasma sufferers.
Tranexamic acid is used in the Lytera 2.0 product formulation, noted above.
Tetrapeptide-30 (TEGO® Pep 4-Even)
Also known as TEGO® Pep 4-Even, Tetrapeptide-30 was formulated to lighten skin, including for age spots and melasma. It does so by both inhibiting melanin production and preventing the transfer of melanin to the upper skin cells. Its manufacturer also claims it can treat acne lesions.
Tetrapeptide-30 is used in the Lytera 2.0 product formulation, noted above.
Buy in our shop:
Licorice extract contains glabridin, a natural compound that inhibits tyrosinase activity, resulting in decreased melanin synthesis.
Like Kojic acid, it is a gentle option for individuals with sensitive skin, since it has skin soothing effects. It also can complement other skin-lightening ingredients in a comprehensive melasma treatment regimen.
Tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E)
While not the strongest skin lightener on its own, vitamin E in the form of tocopheryl acetate is known to reduce hyperpigmentation when combined with other ingredients, such as vitamin C.
This is a common ingredient found in many skincare products. It acts as an antioxidant to help fight free radicals that can lead to hyperpigmentation.
The best skin care ingredients for treatment melasma are in the best products
While melasma may be a persistent condition, incorporating the right skincare ingredients into your daily routine can make a remarkable difference in managing its symptoms.
However, as we’ve seen above, there are many melasma-fighting ingredients that can be found in skin care. The trick is knowing which ones to combine for best results, and which ones not to combine, to avoid further damaging your skin.
When seeking to solve melasma with skin care, it’s best to look for products tailored to this need. Their mix of ingredients will have been made to treat hyperpigmentation.
Better yet: get a doctor’s opinion on a melasma skin care routine that is more likely to work for your skin, rather than someone else’s. It’s more than likely that you’ll need in-clinic treatments to complement at-home skin care when treating melasma.
Finally, it’s essential to remember that consistency is key. It may take several weeks or even months to see significant improvements from melasma treatments.
See more on our blog:
- 3 Top myths about hyperpigmentation and their truths
- How successful melasma treatments are measured and why it matters
- How to treat underarm hyperpigmentation and prevent it in the first place