How Safe Are Skin Lightening Creams?


skin lighteningSkin lightening has seen a big upsurge in popularity in recent years, predominantly due to a number of media stories about high profile celebrities using skin lighteners. Often, the products are used under medical supervision to treat skin conditions or reduce the appearance of problems such as acne scars or age spots. But the increase in the use of bleaching creams is partly down to more people opting to lighten their over all skin tone.

As with any beauty treatment, there are some associated risks. These risks can be mitigated with a few simple precautions. Here is an explanation of how the creams work, why problems can arise, and what you can do to avoid unwanted side effects.

How Is Skin Color Determined?

The color of your skin is determined by the amount of pigment it has. This pigment is produced by cells called melanocytes, and is called melanin. How much melanin is created by the melanocytes is mostly down to genetic inheritance, but there are also environmental factors which can stimulate production such as hormonal imbalances, UVA from sunlight and exposure to certain chemicals.

When melanin production is increased as a result of environmental stimulus, the problem often resolves itself. But sometimes hormonal changes from pregnancy or the aging process can lead to permanent spots of darkened pigmentation.

How Do Skin Lightening Creams Work?

Skin lightening creams make irregular areas of pigmentation much less prominent, thereby greatly evening out the skin tone. Some people use the skin brighteners to reduce the overall skin color of their body, which carries a greater risk due to the large surface area and the amount of product which is being applied.

Skin lighteners contain active ingredients such as hydroquinone, which can reduce the amount of melanin being produced by the melanocytes when applied topically. Over the counter creams will typically contain 2 percent hydroquinone, which is the limit deemed safe by the FDA, but stronger lighteners can be obtained via prescription.

Although hydroquinone is the most popularly found ingredient in the United States, other skin brighteners may contain steroids or retinoic acid (a derivative of vitamin A). You can also purchase creams which are based on natural ingredients such as arbutin or kojic acid.

What Are The Risks Associated With Skin Lightening?

To some extent, the risks depend on which cream you are using. Here are the most common side effects:

  • Steroid based skin lighteners should not be used on the face, unless advised my a medical professional. This is because topical application of steroids can thin the skin, trigger acne, and adversely affect the skin’s ability to heal itself. Some steroid creams can also contribute to skin infections.
  • Hydroquinone based creams can cause skin discoloration in some users. At present, there are no treatments which can reverse this side effect.
  • Long term use of any skin brightener can facilitate premature aging.
  • Users may experience an allergic reaction or skin irritation, as a result of some of the bleaching agents used.
  • Mercury has been found in a quarter of skin brightening creams which are sold in the USA. This can raise your risk of neurological, psychological and kidney problems.
  • Skin brighteners can reduce your body’s natural defenses against UV rays, increasing your risk of skin cancer.

How To Reduce The Risks

If you believe that the benefits of using a skin lightener outweigh the risks, there are a number of measures you can take to lower your personal risk.

  •  Check the ingredients list for mercury. Its use is banned by the FDA, but it can still be found in products produced outside the United States. Mercury may be listed as mercurous, mercuric, mercurio or calomel.
  •  Hydroquinone based products should have a concentration of 2 percent or less. If the concentration is not listed, do not assume that the product is safe to use.
  • Steroid based creams should be used on small patches only, as they can be easily absorbed by the body and lead to health problems.
  • Always apply sunscreen when using skin lightening cream.
  • Pregnant women should never use skin lighteners, as small amounts of the ingredient can pass to the fetus and cause developmental problems.

If you have any concerns about a skin lightening product, always consult your doctor.


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