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Mementos of the summer sun

The Science of the Spa

Summer has come and gone and we are now realizing that new brown spots have appeared on the parts of our bodies that were most exposed to the sun. Fortunately, there are different approaches that can help minimize them, or even make them completely disappear. Over the course of a lifetime, several factors can influence the skin’s natural colouring and cause brown spots to appear on the face or on other areas frequently exposed to the sun, like the hands and neckline. 

  • Over time, the skin’s colouring system can malfunction. It can produce excess melanin which leads to the formation of brown spots, also called lentigos or age spots. These are non-raised brown spots on the face, neck, décolletage, and the backs of hands. Each lentigo is caused by a localized increase in the number of melanocytes, the cells that make melanin, due to exposure to sunlight.
  • Pregnancy, oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy, certain photosensitising medications and probably a genetic predisposition, may be at the root of a condition called melasma, also known as ‘pregnancy mask’ or chloasma. This condition is characterized by facial pigmentation (forehead, cheeks, chin, nose) and usually occurs in women with » darker complexions (phototype III and IV). Melasma tends to worsen in the summer and improve slightly in the winter.
  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs when a lesion heals, leaving behind a flat discoloured area. It is frequently observed in people suffering from acne and can also be caused by cosmetic procedures such as dermabrasion, laser treatments and chemical peels.

Whatever their cause, brown spots tend to resist most of the remedies available on the market and, as a result, users become discouraged rather quickly. Hydroquinone is still the preferred solution. Indeed, its effectiveness has been scientifically proven. Hydroquinone inhibits the formation of melanin – the pigment responsible for the brown colouring of the skin – by acting selectively on the activity of melanocytes, melanin producing cells. It inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme involved in the creation of melanin. Therefore, it diminishes the appearance of lentigos, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma, as well as the appearance of freckles. 


Although its use is controversial – the substance is cytotoxic – and there are questions about its safety, hydroquinone is also the most studied molecule in the category of topical lightening agents and has been doctor-recommended for 50 years now. Generally incorporated at a ratio of 5% in formulas, its side effects are very minor – causing mild irritation of the skin in some cases – and are easily controlled by doctors. When used properly, hydroquinone is safe and remains the best molecule to fight against pigmentation spots, including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma. However, it should only be used under medical supervision. It is currently sold as an over-the-counter medicine but, as of the summer 2018, in Canada, Hydroquinone preparations will only be able to be purchased with a prescription. Some doctors also recommend a combination of tretinoin and vitamin C, but this mixture can be irritating to sensitive skin. At the spa, the most common lightening substances used in skin preparations are vitamin C, resorcinol derivatives, kojic acid, arbutin, licorice extract, Japanese mulberry root extract, AHAs, plant extracts rich in flavonoids, and peptides. Each of these has a precise target of action on the skin and limited effectiveness. They are generally used in combinations for optimum effectiveness. 

No matter the chosen solution, lightening products should be applied daily for a period of 12 to 18 weeks. Why so long? Simply because the skin has its own cycle of renewal and the melanin has already accumulated in the different layers that make up the epidermis. It will take the preparation a few days to begin curbing the melanin production process but the melanin that was already produced before this will have to continue its way through the epidermis to the surface of the skin before it can be eliminated. This process can take several weeks.

Did you know…
Natural compounds of bearberry, mulberry and madder, when hydrolyzed, generate hydroquinone. This is why these plants are found in the ingredients of some of the skin-lightening products available on the market.

Some Expert Advice:

  • Be patient and follow your routine by the letter, the results will be worth it!
  • Protect yourself from the sun at all times with a SPF of 50. Don’t forget your neckline or the back of your hands.
  • In the summer, avoid sun exposure between noon and 4 pm and consider adding other physical protective measures (cap, broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, pants) if you are unable to avoid being in the sun during that period of the day.

This is the best time to deal with brown spots so get started today!

Isabelle Villeneuve

Isabelle Villeneuve is R&D Director – Head of the Valeant International Center of Excellence in Skincare. Passionate about cosmetology, she has more than 25 years of experience. Villeneuve is recognized as an international expert in skin care.

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