Antiaging skin care products, also known as cosmeceuticals, are a big business, and sales continue to increase despite economic uncertainty. The direction of future growth depends on the development of new scientific research and how rapidly products based on this research can be created and launched.

Within the dynamic, rapidly evolving cosmeceutical skin care market there are increasingly fewer major players; a handful of aggressive, second-tier marketers; and some established brands trying to reinvent themselves—as well as startup niche brands, all looking to attract the attention of a highly informed and demanding consumer who wants more than just a garden-variety moisturizer with a good-sounding SPF.

Cosmeceuticals buyers want products that work fast and reliably, look and feel good, and last. Along with function and performance, the sensory and emotional benefits must complete the package to entice them to buy and replenish.

Skin lightening remains a highly controversial topic in light of the threat of pending hydroquinone restrictions. In 2006, the FDA proposed a ban on the use of hydroquinone in over-the-counter products, which is currently allowed in concentrations of less than 2% without a prescription.

Historically, skin-lightening products have contained ingredients such as hydroquinone and mercury, which have since been banned in most major Western markets. In Europe, mercury has been banned from use in cosmetics since 1976, and hydroquinone has been unavailable since 2000.

Another potent skin-lightening agent, kojic acid, which is derived from several species of fungi, has been banned as a cosmetic ingredient in Japan, Korea, and Switzerland due to safety concerns.


According to the organizers of In-Cosmetics Asia (, who are hosting a dedicated skin-whitening conference this year, the category is worth €13 billion, which translates to roughly $19 billion.

Demand is growing rapidly for effective skin-lightening ingredients to replace hydroquinone in pigment-control products. Pigment-control products are becoming increasingly popular as they have many different uses, including the reduction of age spots, acne scarring, and hyperpigmentation.

A new trend among skin-lightening products is that they are increasingly being used for the body—in particular the hands, chest, and lower extremities—whereas they have been previously used mainly for the face. Body products are outpacing the growth of facial skin care products as firming and anti-cellulite formulas emerge.

Skin lighteners and brighteners are becoming more popular as antiaging products, based on their ability to inhibit skin pigmentation. Traditionally, the biggest demand for skin lighteners has been from Asian consumers. However, the growth in ethnic population in the United Kingdom and the United States is now said to have accelerated the demand for lightening products in the West.

Skin lighteners are considered multifunctional cosmetic products. For example, older patients with lighter skin types often use skin lighteners for their antiaging benefits, while persons of color (particularly in Asia) may use them to lighten the overall color and tone of their skin. Loss of radiance is considered one of the signs of skin aging that resonates among all skin types.


Talking Points

Skin brighteners are defined as being able to promote clarity, help even skin tone, enhance radiance, increase skin radiance, and lessen the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Though they may seem similar, skin lighteners and skin brighteners are two different classes of skin products. The primary difference is that skin-lightening formulas contain hydroquinone, which penetrates the skin. Brighteners, on the other hand, typically do not change the structure and function of the skin.

Skin lighteners—most commonly, benoquin and hydroquinone—are potent medications clinically proven to lighten abnormally pigmented skin. In the United States, hydroquinone is available over the counter in a 2% concentration and by prescription only in a 4% concentration.

Botanical lighteners such as kojic acid, bearberry extract, arbutin, licorice, and retinol can boost the effectiveness of skin lighteners as a bleaching agent.

Hydroquinone is still widely considered the gold standard of skin-lightening agents by dermatologists despite its potential side effects.

Ingredients and formulations designed to address pigmentary issues remain an underserved market among physician-dispensed cosmeceutical brands. The need for alternatives to hydroquinone has been highlighted by the looming questions of the FDA’s long-term decision.

Skin-brightening products may be poised to capture additional market share, as more consumers desire a brighter, rather than whiter, skin appearance. The market is overcrowded with products that contain skin-whitening ingredients, such as facial washes and body lotions. This situation has given way to a trend toward microsegmentation—firms have gone after new skin-brightening consumers by promoting products that create a brighter complexion without some of the harsh or potentially risky effects of traditional whitening components.

Research and development focusing on how color reflects light shows that as skin ages the ability to reflect light diminishes. Proteins in the epidermis become cross-linked and rigid, resulting in a loss of transparency and color. Rather than causing the skin to visibly whiten, brightening products even out its tone, discolorations, and blotchiness, resulting in an overall brighter and smoother appearance.

Another emerging approach to skin brightening involves blocking the mechanism that causes skin to develop dark spots; for example, the glycosamine technology used in Olay Definity.

All pigment disorders are caused by an abnormal accumulation of melanin in the epidermis or dermis, which is typically exacerbated by UV radiation exposure and skin aging. The effective improvement of pigment disorders involves a multifactorial approach—control of the signal from keratinocytes that stimulates melanogenesis, melanogenesis activity at the melanocytes, and protection from sun exposure.

“Even skin tone is the key when it comes to treating ethnic skin,” according to Andrew F. Alexis, MD, director, Skin of Color Center at St Luke’s-Roosevelt and Beth Israel in New York City. “There is an emphasis on the reduction and clearance of brown spots and irregularities in pigmentation. In some populations, lighter or brighter skin remains a top priority. Extra attention must be given to minimizing postinflammatory hyperpigmentation in skin of color.”

Alexis also noted that he is seeing an increased interest in hydroquinone alternatives, given the current trend of consumers’ desire for products containing more natural ingredients. In some cases, skin-brightening formulations may be combined with hydroquinone on alternating days (or different times of day) to maximize effectiveness and patient compliance, and minimize the potential for irritation.

One of the newcomers to the skin-brightening category is Lumixyl™, a nontoxic, nonirritating, synthetic peptide technology shown to improve the appearance of discoloration. Dermatological researchers at Stanford University developed it.

The technology is touted to reduce tyrosinase, which results in visible improvement of mild to moderate hyperpigmentation in 8 weeks. The key ingredient in Lumixyl is a chain of 10 amino acids that demonstrate reduced melanin production by as much as 40% compared with hydroquinone.

“When used as directed, Lumixyl appears to significantly help the skin’s ability to diminish dark spots, imparting users with brighter, more even skin tone while limiting irritation and sensitivity to sunlight,” says Nowell Solish, MD, FRCP, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.


Skin-Lightening and
Skin-Brightening Agents

  • Argirilene;

  • Azelaic acid;

  • Bearberry extract (Arbutin);

  • Chitin (polysaccharide);

  • Ellagic acid, pycnogenol (polyphenols);

  • Hydroquinone;

  • Kojic acid;

  • Licorice extract;

  • Linoleic acid;

  • Lumixyl peptide;

  • Shitake mushrooms;

  • Soy; and

  • Vitamins B5, C, and E; Niacinamide.

Currently, consumers are increasingly well educated on the nuances of products and technologies. They are not as easily fooled by price point, imagery, and packaging alone. They don’t always buy into the concept that an expensive product from a premium department store—or their dermatologist’s office—will necessarily be better than a cheaper one purchased at the local drug store.

Savvy skin care shoppers have become accustomed to reading labels to determine what is in the product and in what order. In some cases, they may actually seek out products that reference clinical trials or show before-and-after photos to prove efficacy.

Clinical data is very compelling to a consumer, even if she may not always understand the methodology used or know how to accurately interpret the results. There is a definite push back to the standard cosmetics company advertisements that reference such things as 50% or more reduction in lines and wrinkles within a few weeks. Increasingly, consumers are becoming aware that these simple usage studies in a handful of subjects are not on a par with the results published in peer-reviewed journals.

Cosmeceuticals can be combined with dermatological and clinical treatments, but they do not replace them. This message has been somewhat watered down by aggressive claims and vendor positioning of cosmeceuticals as alternatives to needles, lasers, and surgery.

Even in an economic slump, people are willing to pay a premium for something that produces a visible difference in their skin. The average price for an antiaging skin care product is often two to three times higher than that of a basic skin care product. Premium-quality, higher-priced products and services not only win devotees among middle-market consumers but also compel them to spend more on certain items—and less on other items—based on their personal priorities. For example, in this era of downsizing, some patients express a preference for cosmeceuticals as an adjunct to injectables and light-based devices. Their reasoning is hopeful at best: to maintain the effects of clinical treatments for longer—in essence, protecting their investment.

At the recent HBA Global Expo in New York (, the consensus of opinion from industry analysts was that consumers are shopping more carefully, as well as are more selective and cost conscious. They are sticking with brands they know and trust, and they are spending on essentials while cutting back on luxuries.

Middle-market consumers are still willing to pay more for premium products because they can also “trade down” in other categories that are less important to them. This pattern of spending behavior, of trading up and trading down, has become pervasive in the past few years and is now common among most consumers in all aspects of their lives.

With so many choices at their disposal, the well-informed customer is shopping with a definite purpose in mind. Skin care is not only focused on lines and wrinkles—wrinkles are just one of many signs of aging that products attempt to reverse or reduce. Skin clarity, darkening pigment, and loss of firmness all contribute to the aging process. Age spots, acne, and uneven skin tone contribute to the skin’s overall appearance.

Though facial aging is a primary target of antiaging products, consumers are looking for products that work on the signs of aging in all areas of the body. With a majority of skin care buyers seeking out products to improve their skin’s appearance, vendors may promote their products using scientific-sounding claims about ingredients that may only be used in trace amounts. These claims may sound very convincing to consumers at first glance. One of the physician’s jobs is to become educated on such claims.

The task of sorting through often confusing lists of ingredients can be daunting. In fact, in today’s market skin care technology is getting more complex, which makes it more difficult for marketers and physicians’ offices to explain the science behind the products. Therefore, guidance from a knowledgeable medical or skin care professional or other perceived expert is very appealing. Your patients no longer blindly accept product advice at face value without examining profit motives and representation.


The changing face of skin care marketing is consumer-directed. Word-of-mouth marketing has emerged as an effective tool for manufacturers to reach new consumers. In today’s market, the consumer has all the power because there are so many choices in terms of products and channels.

The new expert in skin care can be a soccer mom in St Louis, an accountant in Jacksonville, or a grad student in Boston. Consumers can create and gain access to product evaluations, trends, and even new product launches before they show up at the mall.

Although it is not as scientific as true market research, this phenomenon can be helpful in gaining unique insights as to what prospective buyers think of one brand’s products, its competitors’ products, or skin care in general.

Consumers are writing reviews about every category of products and then posting them online for millions of people to read. Product reviews and complaints are also showing up in online forums, Web blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. There is no mistaking the effect of word of mouth on consumer loyalty. Buzz marketing is proving to be an effective way to reach skin care consumers. It doesn’t matter what you sell—it’s how you sell it.

The following three tenets, long subscribed to by retailers, can make all the difference to your skin care vertical bottom line: know your customers, identify what is important to them when they shop, and make sure you give it to them.

To attract new cosmeceutical patients, you must have a good knowledge of merchandising, an effective rationale for product selection, and an emphasis on education to ensure that your customers adapt a sensible skin care regimen.

Wendy Lewis is president of Wendy Lewis & Co Ltd Global Aesthetics Consultancy, the author of 10 books, and can be followed on Twitter. She can also be reached at .