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Shining a Light on Skin Brightening

Contact Author Lydia Sarfati June 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

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professional skin care client getting a skin-brightening treatment

Recently, there have been some very exciting advances in skin care science, particularly targeting hyperpigmentation. As a skin care professional, it is important for you to understand how hyperpigmentation occurs, what ingredients to avoid and what technology is available to successfully treat your clients.

How hyperpigmentation occurs

Also called pigment, melanin is a substance that gives skin and hair its natural color. Those with darker skin have higher amounts of melanin. By contrast, those with less pigment have fairer skin. Melanin pigments are formed as part of the process of metabolizing an amino acid called tyrosine. Tyrosine channels the production of melanin and other pigments by oxidation. In humans, melanogenesis is a darkening of the skin, or an increased production of melanin, also called hyperpigmentation. This is a common—usually harmless—condition, during which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin. This darkening occurs when an excess of melanin, the brown pigment that produces normal skin color, forms deposits in the skin.

Although most brightening products work through tyrosinase inhibition, it is possible to influence the process at multiple points. Hyperpigmentation occurs when UV rays from the sun attack the keratinocyte of the skin; the keratinocyte then signals the melanocyte, which initiates the production of melanin. Once the melanocyte receptors are attacked, it triggers tyrosinase, endothelium (ET-1) and alpha melanin, stimulating the alpha melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) to produce melanin. Melanocytes containing melanosomes that carry the melanin pigment travel through their dendritic cells. Once they travel to the aforementioned keratinocyte, they are aggregated, deposited and produce the melanin pigment. This process is called melanogenesis, which creates hyperpigmention.

Ingredients for hyperpigmentation

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In the past, ingredients such as hydroquinone and mercury chloride have been used to treat melanogenesis. These ingredients, however, have been linked to a variety of health issues even when used in small percentages.1 Today, natural ingredients are available that can help reverse hyperpigmentation from the sun, acne scars, hormonal changes and certain prescription medications without risking future health complications. Marine biotechnology and peptide research can now help to rapidly reduce the appearance of uneven skin tone while battling hyperpigmentation to reveal a more luminous complexion. Following are some of these ingredients.

Watermelon extract. It helps protect DNA in skin cells from damage caused by UV light-induced free radicals, and decreases erythema after UV irradiation, protecting the skin. It contains naturally occurring vitamins, carbohydrates and amino acids.

Bellis daisy. Known to reduce melanin activity, bellis daisy helps provide even pigmentation and makes age spots less visible. It reduces the UV-stimulated induction of melanin biosynthesis.

Gotu kola extract. The botanical Centella asiatica is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It may promote wound-healing by stimulating collagen and glycosaminoglycan synthesis, and it promotes healthy skin and helps reduce skin irritation.

Licorice extract. It provides skin-brightening benefits from glabridin, which is known to help inhibit pigmentation by preventing tyrosinase activity without cytotoxicity. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Willow bark extract. It provides natural beta hydroxy acid without skin irritation. It enhances cell renewal and encourages the shedding of dead skin, revealing a brighter-looking complexion.

Ulva lactuca extract. It provides skin-brightening, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and its protective elastic fibers help prevent skin aging. It assists with metabolic stimulation and cell renewal.

Hexapeptide-2. This is a fast-acting skin-brightening peptide that works as an antagonist to MSH, binding to its receptors, thereby decreasing melanin synthesis.

Pelvetia canaliculata extract. It is an anti-inflammatory found to protect against DNA deterioration and skin-aging acceleration, most notably treating pigmented spots for a more even-toned complexion.

Treat and advise

As always, prevention is the key to avoiding hyperpigmentation. Advise clients to always use an SPF, and remind them that it needs to be reapplied throughout the day. Recommend beach umbrellas, large hats and sunglasses whenever they are planning to be outdoors for long periods of time. Also, advise clients to steer clear of topical products containing citrus or oil of bergamot; these ingredients can cause photosensitivity and increase the likelihood of sunburn. Remember: It is your responsibility as a skin care professional to both treat and advise your clients, so be sure that you are doing both for maximum results.

Lydia Sarfati, president and founder of Repêchage, is an internationally recognized skin care expert quoted in Vogue, InStyle, Glamour and The New York Times, and she has been featured on CNN, CBS and Fox. Sarfati has more than 30 years of experience as an esthetician, spa owner, manufacturer and consultant, and is the author of Success at Your Fingertips: How to Succeed in the Skin Care Business (Alluredbooks, 2005).


1. JM Gilbro and MJ Olsson, The melanogenesis and mechanisms of skin-lightening agents—existing and new approaches, Int J Cosmet Sci 33 3 210–21 (Jun 2011)

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How-to: Skin-brightening Facial

Cost: $150

Duration: 60 minutes

Contraindications: These include pregnancy or breast feeding; rosacea; allergy to salicylic acid or aspirin; excessive open lesions; thin, highly sensitive skin; taking isotretinoin; herpes simplex (HV1) in its active stage; atopic dermatitis; chronic urticaria (hives); somatic diseases in an acute stage, including SARS; or recently having depilatory waxing or laser hair removal.

Room preparation: The treatment room should be exceptionally clean. Clean, fresh sheets and towels must be used with every client. Disposable gowns, head coverings and chair liners may also be used.

Equipment and supplies needed:

Cotton squares

Glass bowl

Fan brush


Products needed:

Cleanser with natural skin-brightening actives

Brightening glycolic peel

Alcohol-free refining toner

Skin-brightening peptide-based serum

Brightening massage cream

Ulva lactuca seaweed mask

Antioxidant hand cream

Brightening toner

Brightening day cream

Step 1: After completing a thorough skin analysis, lead your client to the treatment room, ask her to remove her robe and lie face up on the treatment bed, giving her privacy for the process.

Step 2: After re-entering the room, cleanse the client’s skin using a cleanser formulated with natural skin-brightening actives to remove dryness and impurities that dull and darken the complexion. Gently remove the cleanser using a cotton pad saturated with water and pat the skin dry.

Step 3: Place a protective barrier over the client’s eyes in preparation for a glycolic peel. This deep, intensive skin treatment focuses on resurfacing and renewing the skin. When looking for a brightening glycolic peel, make sure that it is gentle enough not to irritate your client’s skin, but effective enough to provide the results they are seeking.

Step 4: Pour the glycolic peel into a small glass bowl and use a fan brush to distribute the product onto the face and neck area. Leave this treatment on for 5–7 minutes, depending on the client’s reaction and comfort level. Remove the product and restore the skin’s pH with an alcohol-free refining toner.

Step 5: Apply a skin-brightening peptide-based serum to the skin. Administer a massage with the brightening serum for 3–5 minutes or until it is fully absorbed.

Step 6: Apply a brightening massage cream to the face and neck, and administer a 5-minute massage. The cream should feature a nice slip, but should also bring benefits to the skin. Along with brightening actives, it is ideal to find a cream with skin-firming actives, as well. Your clients will love that you are providing them with multiple benefits.

Step 7: Apply an Ulva lactuca seaweed mask evenly over the face and down the neck, which has skin-brightening, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-aging benefits. As the mask dries, administer a hand massage using an antioxidant hand cream for about 10–15 minutes. This will help keep your clients relaxed, and will also give them a mini anti-aging treatment for their hands.

Step 8: Once the mask has set, gently remove it by lifting it up from the neck and folding it over. Remove residue with a cotton pad saturated with warm water.

Step 9: Spray a brightening toner over the face to restore the skin’s pH, and pat dry using a clean tissue.

Step 10: Apply a brightening day cream to the entire face and neck that contains natural zinc oxide protection. For continued brightening results, use a cream that contains bellis daisy so that the treatment continues after your clients leave the facial room.

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