Make some room, vitamin C. Tranexamic acid is the latest ingredient cropping up among brightening and dark spot-lightening serums alike. In some ways, it’s nothing new — in fact, it has already been used as an oral treatment to stymie heavy periods by “slowing down the breakdown of clots, so that the body’s clotting system can catch up and form enough clots to slow excess bleeding,” explains Chicago, Illinois, dermatologist Caroline Robinson, MD. It’s since become popular in Japan, where it was discovered to improve pigmentation concerns, like dark spots, when applied topically.
Now, its newest iteration is as a potent skin brightener. “It inhibits the UV light-induced plasminogen activator — which, when active, stimulates the single most important enzyme in melanin formation, tyrosinase, and causes excess blood vessel formation,” explains Dr. Robinson. “It therefore slows down the production of excess pigment by making a key pigment producing enzyme less active — and at the same time decreases redness.”
It’s that last part that’s important — namely, that tranexamic acid targets red spots. Unlike vitamin C and kojic acid, and other recognizable brightening ingredients, tranexamic acid is able to both prevent the “brown” melanin pigment and block the “red” tone caused by excess blood vessels. “What this ingredient does well is protect against volatile pigmentation that is easily triggered by small amounts of sun, and it really helps with cases of underlying redness that we notice when the [dark spots] clear away,” says Dr. Robinson.
Its ability to target both red and brown spots is especially powerful for treating difficult discoloration, since some conditions have “an underlying vascular component,” according to Dr. Robinson. That means that beneath the brown pigment, some patients also have redness from an increase in blood vessels. Additionally, tranexamic acid can be beneficial for those who have erythrotelangiectatic rosacea (the kind that usually appears as redness and visible blood vessels) and discoloration with considerable underlying inflammation.
The early research seems to be promising. “According to a small study, it [may] perform as well as [some powerful skin brighteners],” says Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic chemist and one of the podcasters behind The Beauty Brains℠, referring to a paper published in the Journal of Research in Medical SciencesTM. Meanwhile, another study in the Journal of Drugs in DermatologyTM found that a blend of three percent tranexamic acid, one percent kojic acid, and five percent niacinamide was both an effective and well-tolerated treatment for pigmentation-related conditions.
Much of the current research has focused on formulas that contain at least two and up to five percent of tranexamic acid, says cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko. “[Pairing it with] anti-inflammatories and skin brighteners like niacinamide, ascorbic acid, and green tea may be beneficial as well,” he says.
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new medication.
That’s generally a smart idea: “Since its mechanism is so unique and different from other brightening ingredients, it complements them well,” says Dr. Robinson. “Tranexamic acid is a great addition to our tools against [discoloration], but it’s even better when combined in a treatment regimen that addresses pigment before, during, and after the spot is formed.” It offers a 360-degree approach to pigmentation concerns versus just targeting a spot once it appears.
Not surprisingly, tranexamic acid has been popping up in a number of skincare products. The Inkey ListTM Tranexamic Acid ($15) gives two percent tranexamic acid a boost with a vitamin C derivative and açaì berry extract.
Meanwhile, Peace Out® Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots ($28) pair it with niacinamide in a convenient patch to target specific dark spots while you sleep. Last but not least, Dr. Brandt® Dark Spots No More® Triple Acid Spot Minimizing Concentrate ($68) offers three potent acids — three percent tranexamic acid, two percent phytic acid, and 10 percent azelaic acid — in a lightweight serum to target age and sun spots and post-acne marks. “The future for the treatment of [dark spots] is bright,” says Dr. Robinson. “Pun intended.”
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