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Skin Lightening /bleaching is a cosmetic practice that aims to lighten someone’s skin. Some individuals may use it to try lightening specific areas or dark spots, while others may want to lighten their overall skin tone.
Many products that claim to lighten skin tone are not safe. According to the International Journal of Dermatology Trusted Source, skin bleaching poses a serious public health threat because many contain mercury, which is a toxic heavy metal.
Hydroquinone and niacinamide are safer options. However, there is no guarantee they will lighten the complexion evenly.
Researchers connect racism to the trend for skin bleaching. When people believe that only lighter skin is attractive, they may become unhappy with their own appearance. This can affect mental health.
In this article, learn more about skin bleaching, the methods for doing it, its origins, and the risks.
Skin bleaching is the practice of trying to lighten the skin. It has existed for hundreds of years.
Some use skin lightening to reduce the appearance of specific areas of hyperpigmentation. This is when a specific area of the skin darkens in response to an injury or medical condition, such as:
- sun damage
- pregnancy, which can cause melasma
Dermatologists often provide advice and safe treatment options for lightening smaller areas of skin.
However, the term “skin bleaching” usually refers to overall skin lightening, which is not something dermatologists support. This practice aims to lighten the whole complexion, changing a person’s skin tone.
Skin bleaching is very common worldwide. A 2018 meta-analysisTrusted Source and meta-regression study that included 68 studies and 67,665 participants in total found that 27.7% had tried to bleach their skin.
A report by the World Health Organization (WHO)Trusted Source estimates that, by 2024, the skin bleaching industry will be worth $31.2 billion.
Skin bleaching is not medically necessary but something people choose to do for cosmetic reasons. Some people use it to lighten melasma, blemishes, and age spots, while others try to use it to alter their skin tone.
People may feel this will make them more attractive or more confident. However, the practice of attempting to lighten a person’s complexion links to racism.
Racism frames being white as superior to all other races and ethnicities. This also applies to beauty standards, causing people to view white, European forms of beauty as the most desirable.
Another key driver of skin bleaching is colorism, which is related to — but distinct from — racism. Colorism is a discriminatory practice of preferring lighter skin tones over darker skin tones, both intraracially (within groups) or ethnoracially (across groups). It can affect any racial or ethnic group.
Colorism is rooted in racism, and like racism, it places value based on skin color.
A 2018 study found that internalizing white beauty standards contributed to African American and Indian women’s dissatisfaction with their skin and hair, as well as attempts to lighten both.
Another 2019 study found that exposure to advertisements and self-esteem issues predicted skin bleaching among students at the University of Lagos.
This shows how the negative messages people hear about skin tone can substantially alter their self-image and influence behavior. However, the reverse is also true — hearing positive messages may bolster self-esteem and reduce the desire for skin bleaching.
A 2019 study in Nigeria found that self-acceptance and education about the risks of skin bleaching could help prevent the practice.
There are several active ingredients that can fade areas of hyperpigmentation. Some ingredients also reduce pigmentation in the skin more generally. Skin bleaching products may contain:
Vitamin C may reduce spots of hyperpigmentation, including those from acne. A 2020 studyTrusted Source found that it is more likely to work at higher concentrations of up to 20%. Concentrations higher than this do not work any better.
Vitamin C can bind to melanin, reducing melanin production and addressing hyperpigmentation.
Manufacturers often market niacinamide as an antidote to age spots and other types of hyperpigmentation. It is safe in small doses applied to the skin.
A 2020 study found that niacinamide could reduce hyperpigmentation when researchers used it as part of a blend that also contained tranexamic acid, kojic acid, and hydroxyethylpiperazine ethane. The study suggests using these products with antioxidants could address hyperpigmentation in skin of color.
Retinoids such as retinol can help accelerate the skin turnover process, which may help the skin heal from injury. A 2021 studyTrusted Source found that retinoids can reduce post-inflammatory marks from acne, as well as hyperpigmentation in skin of color.
Retinoids are generally safe. However, forms such as tretinoin can causeTrusted Source adverse effects. These substances are also not safe for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
As with vitamin C, retinoids make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so sunscreen is necessary. It can also cause side effects such as:
Hydroquinone is a depigmentation agent that is present in many skin bleaching products. A person can buy a 2% solution over the counter or seek a prescription for a stronger 4% solution. Results usually appear within 3–6 months after applying hydroquinone one to two times per day.
Hydroquinone has many potential adverse effects. It can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it is important to use sunscreen. Some other potential side effects include:
- blue-gray skin discoloration
- skin irritation and redness
- damage to the skin
- skin dryness
- false elevation of blood glucose on a blood glucose test that uses blood from capillaries
The WHOTrusted Source considers hydroquinone to be a “hazardous chemical.”
Mercury is a toxic metal that harms humans and the environment. Despite this, it is in many Trusted Source skin-lightening products, including soaps, creams, and other cosmetics. It inhibits the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.
People who use mercury-containing products on the skin may develop:
- skin rashes
- skin discoloration
- reduced resistance to skin infections
- peripheral neuropathy
- kidney damage
With enough exposure, mercury can cause death.
Mercury may appear on product labels under the following names:
- mercury oxide
- mercuric iodide
- ethyl mercury
- mercurous chloride
- phenyl mercuric salts
However, not all manufacturers list their ingredients transparently, making it hard to know if skin lightening products contain mercury. Instructions to avoid contact with metal jewelry can be a warning sign, as mercury bonds to some precious metals, such as gold.
Numerous countries have banned mercury for cosmetic use, but not all. Even in places where it is illegal, it is often still possible to buy products that contain it online.
When people wash mercury-containing products off their skin, it eventually ends up in the ocean, where it can enter the food chain and contaminate fish. Eating these fish can also harm humans, as well as other animals.
A 2018 systematic reviewTrusted Source found preliminary evidence to support the use of some other ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation but emphasizes a need for further research. These ingredients include:
- azelaic acid
- green tea
- ellagic acid
- koji berry
The results of skin lightening treatment, whether for specific areas or the whole complexion, vary greatly.
Safer ingredients, such as niacinamide and vitamin C, may modestly reduce hyperpigmentation. However, the extent of the reduction depends on the individual case.
Attempts to change the entire skin tone are often much riskier. It can result in patchy, uneven pigmentation or in hyperpigmentation, making the skin darker in places.
For example, hydroquinone can causeTrusted Source ochronosis, which is blue or black discoloration. Ochronosis is more common when a person uses hydroquinone at high doses.
Treating areas of hyperpigmentation can be safe if a person uses dermatologist-approved methods and avoids harmful substances.
However, attempts to bleach the entire skin are always risky, even if someone uses safer methods. It may causeTrusted Source:
- an uneven skin tone
- irritation, rashes, or eczema
Globally, the biggest risk of skin bleaching by far comes from mercury.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury established an upper limit of 1 milligram of mercury per kilogram (mg/kg)Trusted Source in topical products. However, any amount of mercury is harmful. Many skin lightening creams contain more than this.
For example, a 2020 studyTrusted Source of Jamaican skin bleaching products found that many contained mercury, with six out of 60 products containing more than is permissible in the United States. Of the participants, 51% of women and 49% of men used such products at least once per day.
Even when mercury products are illegal, they are easy to obtain. The WHO calls this “a global crisis expected only to worsen with skyrocketing demand, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.”
There is no DIY or home remedy that can safely bleach the skin. The recipes people can find for this online may contain unsafe or risky ingredients. Even ingredients that do seem relatively safe may cause damage over time.
For example, some DIY skin lightening recipes call for lemon juice. Lemon juice is an acid that can exfoliate the skin and contains vitamin C. However, it is strongly acidic and can cause:
- uneven skin tone and white patches
- sensitivity to UV light
For this reason, it is best to purchase skin products that are diluted to a safe pH level and that a third party has tested for safety.
Speak with a health professional before using any homemade or store-bought skin-lightening product, even if it seems safe.
Skin lightening /bleaching is a common cosmetic practice worldwide. Some use it to lighten specific areas of hyperpigmentation. However, many use skin bleaching products to lighten their complexion overall.
There is no safe or reliable way to lighten someone’s skin tone. Products or DIY recipes that claim to do so carry numerous risks. Even legal and over-the-counter options, such as hydroquinone creams, can sometimes lead to permanent discoloration.
The pressure of white beauty standards, colorism, and racism drives the demand for skin bleaching products. However, research shows that educating people on the potential risks, and fostering self-acceptance, can prevent people from using risky products.
If a person is concerned about hyperpigmentation or is considering trying skin bleaching, the safest strategy is to speak with a doctor.