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Do underarm whitening creams really work?

Everything is going her way (including her underarms).
Everything is going her way (including her underarms).
Drima/iStock/Thinkstock

Wave your hands in the air like you just don't care. That's the mandate handed down by dozens of musicians, from MC Frontalot to Miley Cyrus. Yep, party the night away with your arms up, armpits fully exposed. A fun time for many can actually be an embarrassing situation for a lot of people plagued with issues of underarm darkening or splotchiness.

The reasons for underarm discoloration vary. Pregnancy, diabetes and even just irritation from shaving can cause skin in the armpits to darken (See What causes underarm darkening?). This problem, called hyperpigmentation, results from excess melanin production in the underarms. As you may have guessed, melanin is the natural substance made by your body that gives color to your skin, your hair and the irises in your eyes. The amount of melanin your body produces dictates your general skin tone, so people with more melanin have darker complexions and vice versa. Also, that amount isn't constant. Hanging out in the sun can stimulate the skin cells that make melanin – melanocytes – and voila, you get a sun tan.

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But as we said, melanin production can sometimes get out of control, causing hyperpigmentation in the armpits and leaving people with uneven skin tone. To combat this problem, scientists have formulated different skin lightening agents to be applied as topical creams to the problem areas. These creams are regulated and approved to inhibit melanin production. So underarm whitening creams actually do work and can help with this problem. On the flip side, the active ingredients can cause skin irritation and may even be linked to cancer, so these products are highly regulated. You can buy over-the-counter creams that are less powerful or see a dermatologist to get a prescription one that may act more aggressively.

The term "underarm whitening cream" is actually a bit misleading. To flat out bleach your armpits could be done, but probably wouldn't give the result people are looking for. Generally folks with hyperpigmentation are looking to even out their skin tone, not to create a patch of skin in their armpits that's bleached lighter than the rest of their skin.

Thankfully, underarm whitening creams don't bleach in that way. Instead, these formulas (the higher-end ones, anyway) will have two main components, one that simply acts as a cover-up with some pigment added to conceal the problem and another workhorse chemical that stops further melanin production.

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One of the most common of these workhorses is hydroquinone. This small molecule inserts itself into the biochemical pathways that cause melanin production to slow it down or stop it altogether. As a result, the skin tone in the armpits appears more evenly colored. But what about the melanin that already accumulated and led to a darker, splotchy appearance? Provided you have healthy skin, your body will repair it eventually, just like a suntan fades.

Hydroquinone isn't without its problems, however. It causes skin irritation and is suspected to cause cancer. As a result, many countries have banned its use, and the amounts available in the U.S. are regulated to be at 2 percent for over-the-counter creams and 4 percent for prescription medications [source: Bailly]. Some other chemicals, like arbutin and kojic acid, can serve the same lightening function as hydroquinone, but they are plagued with similar problems and can be hard to formulate for shelf-stable products. Fun fact: You can find kojic acid in Japanese sake. Could that be a more fun way to combat the problem than using a topical cream?

Wave your hands in the air for more related links on underarms next.

Author's Note: Do underarm whitening creams really work?

You know when you learn a new word and suddenly it's everywhere? I didn't even realize that underarm darkening and splotches were an issue until I started working on this article, and now I've noticed a lot of people with the problem, especially since it's gotten hot out. In digging around for information on these creams, I came across a lot of places to buy the creams, but not much on how they work. But then I was lucky enough to secure an interview with a chemist at a major pharmaceutical company who asked to remain off-record, as the necessary approval to speak to me could take months. When possible, I tried to verify the information he supplied with secondary sources.

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Sources

  • Bailly, Jenny. "15 Treatments for More Beautiful Skin." O, The Oprah Magazine. May 2009. (May 21, 2014) http://www.oprah.com/style/Treating-Common-Skin-Problems-How-to-Get-Better-Skin
  • Blakey, Simon. Associate Professor of Chemistry, Emory University. Personal interview. May 13, 2014.
  • Denton, Cleveland R.; Lerner, Aaron Bunsen; Fitzpatrick, Thomas B. "Inhibition of Melanin Formation by Chemical Agents." Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Vol 18. Pages 119-135. 1952.
  • Medline Plus. "Melanin." Nov. 4, 2012. (May 21, 2014) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002256.htm
  • Moore, Shelley. "What Are the Dangers of Hydroquinone?" Livestrong. Oct. 24, 2013. (May 21, 2014) http://www.livestrong.com/article/98207-dangers-hydroquinone/
  • Ramos, Stephanie. "Could Sake Erase Your Wrinkles?" Macaron Magazine. 2014. (May 21, 2014) http://www.macaronmagazine.com/could-sake-erase-your-wrinkles/

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