Skin bleaching, also known as skin lightening or skin whitening, refers to the use of various products, treatments, or procedures to lighten the natural color of the skin. The goal of skin bleaching is often to achieve a lighter complexion or to address issues such as dark spots, uneven skin tone, or hyperpigmentation.
Sales of skin whitening agents increase annually, led by the Asian market. Particularly in India, China, and Korea, skin color is an important factor in social status: People with fair skin, especially women, may be more likely to be viewed by some as young, beautiful, or of a high social class (Schroff, 2018; Qian, 2020). Because of this, the market for skin bleaching agents is huge. It’s been estimated that 15% of the world’s population uses skin whitening products (Pillaiyar, 2017).
Unfortunately, many of those products are dangerous and pose real health risks.
How does skin bleaching work?
Skin bleaching operates by reducing the concentration of melanin, the pigment in the skin. Individuals with darker skin possess a higher melanin content compared to those with lighter skin. Melanocytes, which are skin cells, are responsible for producing melanin (Desmedt, 2016).
Regulation of skin bleaching products falls outside the purview of the FDA. Conventional lightening agents consist of chemicals such as corticosteroids, hydroquinone, and mercury. These agents lighten the skin by either impeding the growth of melanocytes or disrupting melanin production. However, this process also harms melanocytes, and there is a potential for these substances to be absorbed into the bloodstream, impacting areas beyond the skin. The associated side effects can be severe, including conditions like dermatitis, irritation, sensitivity, toxicity, kidney damage, and even brain damage (Qian, 2020).
Due to the detrimental effects, the cosmetic industry is adopting an alternative approach to skin lightening. Newer lightening products often derive from plants. They generally function by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase, a naturally occurring enzyme that contributes to melanin synthesis. Plant-derived agents such as arbutin (derived from the bearberry plant) and its derivatives like kojic acid and nicotinamide are commonly found in these alternative products. Although these products may still provoke local irritation and sensitivity, they are considered to be less hazardous than traditional products containing mercury compounds (Qian, 2020).
What are skin bleaching creams?
Common topical (applied to the skin) bleaching creams and lotions have historically contained hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury compounds. Although they’re generally effective, these chemicals can have serious side effects, both on the skin area they’re applied to and throughout the body (Qian, 2020):
Steroids (corticosteroids), when used over large areas for long periods,can have side effects such as acne, infection, inflammation, osteoporosis, a condition called Cushing’s syndrome, and more.
Mercury compounds can cause mercury poisoning and damage the nervous system. Side effects include headache, hearing loss, disordered thoughts, kidney damage, and even death. Skin bleaching products containing mercury are banned in the United States, but products made overseas may still contain mercury.
Hydroquinonehas long been the mainstay of skin lightening. It’s available as a 2% concentration over the counter or 4% by prescription. If used for long periods, it can cause blue-black skin discoloration called ochronosis (Schwartz, 2021). Hydroquinone is banned in the European Union but can be sold in the United States.
Other agents found in skin lightening creams
Since traditional lightening agents come with some serious potential side effects, you may see other ingredients used instead.
Tretinoin (retinoic acid)is commonly used for its anti-aging effects on the skin and for acne, but it also helps lighten skin. Pregnant women shouldn’t use it because it may cause harm to the fetus (Desmedt, 2016).
Glutathioneis an antioxidant and is used in cancer treatment. It’s a popular skin lightener in some countries, but its safety and effectiveness of glutathione haven’t been evaluated enough to formally recommend its use as a lightener (Sonthalia, 2016).
Newer alternatives that may have fewer or less serious side effects include:
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
Niacin (B3) and niacinamide
Arbutin and its derivatives kojic acid and nicotinamide
At-home skin lightening ingredients
Some of the following are commonly recommended for homemade skin lightening products, but their effectiveness may be mixed:
Lemon juice and water
Olive oil and honey
Aloe vera gel
Turmeric (mixed with yogurt)
What are oral skin bleaching products?
There are a number of products that can be taken orally (by mouth) to lighten skin. These are newer treatments. Although they currently appear to be effective and safe, more research is needed to determine if they’re safe for all people or when taken for longer periods. If you’re interested in oral skin lightening products, talk to your healthcare provider about your best options. Some oral products include (Juhasz, 2018; Grimes, 2018):
Polypodium leucotomos hydrophilic extract
Glutathione is sometimes used intravenously (injected) for skin lightening. This increases the risk of dangerous side effects and should be avoided.
What are skin bleaching procedures?
Laser treatment can be used to lighten areas of dark skin and to do overall skin bleaching. While laser treatment can be effective, it can take as many as a dozen treatments to complete and can be quite expensive. People with sensitive skin or skin that tends to scar may not be good candidates for laser treatment.
What’s the best way to do skin bleaching?
Skin bleaching is best used to lighten specific dark spots or small areas of discolored skin. Skin lightening agents can help with:
Pigmentation left from acne blemishes
Spots and melasma (darkened areas due to sun exposure)
Using skin lightening agents on small areas of skin discoloration rather than on a large scale reduces the risk of serious side effects.
Should you do skin bleaching?
Using skin bleaching agents over large areas of skin can cause premature aging of the skin by making the skin more fragile. Having fragile, damaged skin also increases your risk of skin cancer. Always use a high-SPF sunscreen if you’re using skin-lightening products.
Pregnant women should consult with their healthcare provider before using any skin lightening agent.
If you’d like to try skin bleaching of any kind, stay safe and start by talking to a dermatologist. Products bought online, and even DIY at-home products, may run the risk of negative effects, even if used as directed. Skin lightening is one situation when it’s best to follow the guidance of a medical professional.
Jenny Soul is a passionate relationships expert, dating counselor and sales coach. She is also a songwriter, performer and mum. When she is not writing, she engages in counselling sessions and motivational speeches to young people.