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Originally published Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Skin brighteners find a welcome

Skin Deep: The look of an extra-pale complexion is spawning products being touted as brighteners and lighteners to help erase acne scarring, fade dark spots and give aging skin a youthful glow.

The New York Times

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There may have been no blizzards here this winter, but there is one place where women are confronting a complete whiteout: the beauty counter.

With names that include words like Le Blanc, Snow and White Cloud, a slew of new skin-care products suggests that they can create the look of an extra-pale complexion that has been coated in SPF 50 since birth. In Japan, where this type of item has been popular for a couple of decades, lighter skin is exactly what it promises. But in the United States, where there is a broad mix of races and skin tones, these skin-care offerings (sometimes identical to what is sold in Asia, just in different packaging) are being touted as overall brighteners, to help fade acne scarring, lighten dark spots and give aging skin a youthful glow.

"According to where you are in the world, there are different ways to express what women are concerned about," said Christine Dagousset, an executive vice president who oversees Chanel's fragrance and beauty business in America. "In Asia, there are a lot of whitening products, and that's what the category is called, which is in reference to the pearl-white skin that they aspire to have. In the U.S., it's different because it's more about evening the complexion, and it's for all ethnicities. We call it brightening. It's not about the color of the skin."

Combining the words "skin" and "whitening" might bring to mind a Michael Jacksonesque complexion transformation. But these cosmetic products, which are available in department stores and beauty boutiques, don't include strong (and potentially hazardous) ingredients to bleach the skin, like topical steroids. This new crop of whiteners also works without hydroquinone, a skin lightener that has been banned in some countries and can potentially lead to ocrinosis, or the transformation of the color of skin protein to a definitely not attractive bluish hue. And they're being marketed for all skin tones, to tackle everything from 20-somethings' acne scars to the sunspots that tend to appear on skin as it ages.

"They really have a broad demographic," said Kim Burrs, brand marketing director for skin care at Sephora.

Dr. Ellen Marmur, a New York-based dermatologist affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital, described the process.

"Essentially, these all work in different ways to eliminate the pigment, which is called melanin," she said, adding, "They're all mildly effective."

Each of the new lines on the market offers its own cocktail of active ingredients. In the Chanel Le Blanc line, pearl extract works with a patented molecule that the company calls TXC, or transexamic acid cetyl ester, which is said to reduce melanin production and has earned a "quasi-drug" categorization in Japan. (Next month, Shiseido is introducing two new products as part of its White Lucent line, an eye cream and a serum, which have also been awarded this classification.)

Dior has developed a formula for its Snow line that combines birch sap and hibiscus with other ingredients, including water imported from Iceland. The La Prairie White Caviar range, which was recently expanded to include more items like a hand and eye cream, uses extracts of natural ingredients like ginseng, licorice root and — not surprisingly, from a brand that charges $350 for its eye cream — caviar.

Even without the word "white" in the names, many skin-care brands are introducing their own dark spot combaters, typically containing vitamin C, which, Marmur said, acts as an exfoliant. This month Kiehl's is introducing Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution ($49.50), which promises that its C molecules are so small they are more easily absorbed by the skin. Perricone MD is coming out with Vitamin C Ester 15 ($120), which is packaged in a set of slender tubes and (not unpleasantly) smells a lot like a frozen orangesicle. StriVectin Get Even Brightening Serum ($89) blends niacin with vitamin C, and L'Oreal Paris new Youth Code Dark Spot Correcting and Illuminating Serum Corrector ($24.99) uses a form of vitamin C, ascorbyl glucoside, mixed with vitamin B3, which also purportedly slows melanin production.

For less intense lightening, there is a wide selection of so-called BB Creams, essentially single-step tinted moisturizers that include sunblock as well as ingredients to brighten. These also started in Asia but are now available in this country from brands like MAC, Garnier and Estee Lauder. The Diorsnow line also includes this type of cream, UV Shield BB Creme SPF 50 PA + + + ($50), in its six-item collection. In a sense, using these is a bit like intentionally applying foundation that is a couple of shades too light, but since they include physical color, they do offer instant result, even if they might last only until you wash your face.

With the prevalence of sun damage (and fair-skinned role models like the women of "Downton Abbey," Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and Eastern European runway models taking over from the bronzed tanning-parlor addicts of a decade ago), perhaps it's no surprise that these products are beginning to resonate with consumers.

Sheri Lee, a 24-year-old accountant, has been using StriVectin serum for about a month, having received it after "liking" the brand on Facebook and sending in a picture of her acne scars and sun damage.

"The scarring on the acne has faded, and my sunspots have disappeared," Lee said. "Now I can go out of the house without wearing any makeup and not feel self-conscious. It's made a big difference."

And Dayna Gerring, a Manhattan tutor who is 54 but arguably looks about 15 years younger, noticed that her fair skin looked more even and that its dark spots had faded after using Clinique Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector ($49.50) for a couple of months.

"I started putting it on, and I was like, 'You know, I think this really looks better,' " Gerring said. "And then people were telling me, 'Your skin looks better.' "

Brighteners do not work for everyone, however.

"Some people's bodies make melanin so quickly that it overwhelms any topical cream you're going to put on," Marmur said.

Fortunately, the cosmetics industry is fickle; if people with freckles wait around long enough, they will probably have their day in the sun.

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