With the public’s growing interest in skin whitening, lightening ingredients only used under dermatological supervision until recently, are more and more frequently incorporated into cosmetic formulas. The active agents that lighten skin tone are either natural or synthetic substances, and may act at various levels of melanogenesis. They are used to treat various skin pigmentation disorders or simply to obtain a lighter skin tone as whiter skin may be synonymous of wealth, health, youth, and/or beauty in different cultures. However, recent studies demonstrated the adverse effects of some of these ingredients, leading to their interdiction or restricted use under the European Directive and several other international regulations. After an overview of skin whitening practices and the associated risks, this article provides insight into the mechanisms involved in melanin synthesis and the biological assays available to attest the lightening activity of individual ingredients. The legislation dealing with the use of skin lighteners is then discussed. As traditional depigmenting agents such as hydroquinone and corticosteroids are of safety concern, the potential of natural extracts has been investigated more and more; finally, a synthesis of three years of research in our laboratory for such plant extracts will be given.
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