Skin lightening creams, also known as skin brightening creams, are designed to lighten skin color. The creams are often used to spot-treat dark areas of the skin, such as age spots or acne scars. They are sometimes used to lighten the complexion overall.
While these creams can be prescribed for specific skin conditions, they can have side effects. The risks can be serious, especially with over-the-counter creams that may not be tested for safety.
This article discusses how skin lightening creams work. It also covers the conditions they can treat and the risks of using them.
Skin lightening creams are products designed to bleach and lighten the skin. They target skin cells to decrease the level of melanin. Melanin is a pigment produced by skin cells. It determines how light or dark our skin appears.
Skin lightening products can come in the form of creams, lotions, oils, and serums. Creams and oils are usually heavier and better for dry skin. If your skin tends to be on the oily side, you may want to opt for a lighter serum. Your dermatologist can advise you on which kind is best for your skin type.
Several varieties of skin lightening creams are available online and over the counter (OTC). However, it’s best to talk with your healthcare provider before using skin lightening creams. Prescription products are regularly tested for safety and efficacy, unlike OTC products, which could contain dangerous ingredients.
What Is Skin Pigmentation?
How They Work
Skin lightening creams contain ingredients that work to decrease your body’s production of melanin. Melanin is made by cells called melanocytes. Skin bleaching products work by lowering the number of melanocytes in your skin.
Many skin lightening creams contain hydroquinone, which is known to decrease melanocytes.
Vitamin C, also a common ingredient in skin lightening creams, is an antioxidant that is known to lower melanin production in our cells.
Glycolic acid, which is also found in many skin brightening creams, works as an exfoliant. It helps to brighten the skin by clearing away dead cells.
Retinoids, products derived from vitamin A, can also be used to lighten dark spots. They work by speeding up the turnover of surface skin cells. They can include retinol, adapalene gel, tazarotene, and tretinoin.
What Does Vitamin C Do for Your Skin?
Skin lightening creams may be used for various conditions that cause discoloration. These include:
- Age spots
- Acne scars
- Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Addison's disease
Melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) are both conditions that cause dark, blotchy areas. Common areas include parts exposed to the sun, like the forehead and cheeks.
PIH leads to a darker complexion in areas inflamed because of injury to the skin. For example, scarring may cause darker areas, or severe acne can leave dark spots after it resolves.
Hormonal imbalances and endocrine conditions like Addison's disease can also lead to darkening of the skin.
With Addison's disease, the adrenal gland doesn't produce enough of certain hormones. Those with Addison's disease produce a high level of adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the melanocytes to produce more melanin, resulting in skin darkening.
Compare to Makeup
If you have walked down a makeup aisle recently or browsed a makeup website, you probably saw dozens of products claiming to "brighten" your skin. Brightening makeup products help to even skin tone and provide an overall brighter look by covering dark spots and leaving a dewy glow on the skin.
Brightening makeup foundations and concealers work on the skin’s surface, but—unlike bleaching products—do not affect how much melanin the skin cells are producing. As soon as the makeup is washed off, your skin will return to its natural color.
It’s unclear how long the effects of skin lightening creams last. However, extended use carries serious risks (see below).
In 2020, OTC products containing hydroquinone were removed from the market. This was because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified them as "not generally recognized as safe and effective." Even though hydroquinone products were removed from store shelves, they're still available by prescription.
The ingredient hydroquinone has been linked to exogenous ochronosis, a disorder that makes the skin appear black and blue. This condition is difficult to treat and can result in permanent discoloration of the skin. It may be more common when applying hydroquinone over a large area of the skin or in higher concentrations.
Because many skin lightening creams contain corticosteroids, steroid acne is also a possible side effect.It can also lead to skin breakdown and leave users with open sores and scarring.
Milder side effects have also been reported, including dermatitis and skin irritation.
Skin Bleaching Has Roots in Prejudice
A deeply negative side to skin lightening creams is that they can be used to promote or perpetuate colorism. Colorism refers to the belief that lighter skin is better and more beautiful than darker skin.
Women around the globe have felt pressure to use these sometimes-dangerous products in order to avoid prejudice and gain privilege in certain cultures.
Risks of Mercury Poisoning
Concerns have been raised over recent years about the mercury content in some skin lightening creams.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic in even small amounts. The FDA has limited the amount of mercury in cosmetic products to trace amounts not exceeding 1 part per million (ppm).
However, in a 2014 study, researchers tested 549 skin lightening products for their mercury content. They found that 6% contained mercury levels above 1,000 ppm, while some had mercury levels as high as 10,000 ppm. Of the U.S. products, 3.3% had mercury levels over 1,000 ppm.
Though products from the United States were somewhat safer, it can be difficult to determine the country of origin of products purchased online.
Being exposed to mercury over time can cause symptoms like:
More severe symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble breathing
- Changes in vision
- Difficulty walking
Mercury poisoning requires immediate medical attention.
Exposure to mercury can also cause kidney damage over time. Users of skin brightening products have been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome after using the cream for months. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder that causes the body to excrete too much protein in the urine.
Symptoms of nephrotic syndrome include:
- Severe swelling
- Fluid retention
- Foamy urine
- Loss of appetite
Nephrotic syndrome is treatable, however, and will resolve once the mercury exposure stops.
More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of using skin-lightening products. The chemicals in skin lightening creams have not been studied over a long period of time, so it's unknown if they will lead to long-term conditions.
Skin lightening creams may be used to spot-treat dark areas of the skin or lighten skin overall. They may be prescribed for specific skin conditions, such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
However, these creams can have serious side effects. Those with hydroquinone can cause a disorder called exogenous ochronosis, which causes the skin to become black and blue. Some skin lightening creams may contain mercury, which can lead to mercury poisoning or a kidney disorder called nephrotic syndrome.
A Word From Verywell
When used with a healthcare provider's supervision, skin lightening creams can be an option to help with any unwanted skin darkening or spots. But be realistic about how effective these products can be in brightening skin tone or reducing the appearance of dark spots.
Always talk with your healthcare provider before using any skin lightening products. They can make sure you're using a cream that's safe for you and appropriate for your skin condition.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does hydroquinone bleaching cream work?
Hydroquinone bleaching cream works by reducing the number of melanocytes in the body. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin. When there is less melanin in the skin, it becomes lighter.
Anyone using products containing hydroquinone should know about its risks. Long-term use of the ingredient is known to cause ochronosis, a condition that causes the skin to turn black and blue.
Are there skin lightening creams for melasma?
Yes, there are skin lightening creams for melasma. These include hydroquinone, tretinoin with a corticosteroid, triple combination cream, azelaic acid, vitamin C, and kojic acid. Some creams require a prescription, so you may need to visit a dermatologist.
Natural Remedies for Dark Spots
Skin lightening products (also called skin brightening or fade products) are used by both dark and light-skinned individuals to lighten skin tone, fade freckles, or get rid of age spots.Does skin lightening cream actually work? ›
People with dark skin have more melanin. Hormones, sunlight, and certain chemicals also affect melanin production. When you apply a skin bleaching product to the skin, such as hydroquinone, it decreases the number of melanocytes in your skin. This can result in lighter skin and a more even appearance to the skin.Does skin lightening mean bleaching? ›
Skin bleaching is a term that was more popular in the 80's than it is today, and is essentially the same as skin whitening. The difference between skin lightening and whitening is largely based on the degree/severity with which melanin production is reduced.What is the difference between whitening and lightening? ›
Skin Lightening creams reduce discoloration and make skin even tone. whitening creams are more about restoring vibrancy to the skin and are chemically bleaching our skin beyond its natural skin tone.What is the side effect of skin lightening? ›
- skin turning dark or too light.
- thinning of the skin.
- visible blood vessels in the skin.
- kidney, liver or nerve damage.
- abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)
The effects of skin lightening treatment can last between a few months to a few years. Dermatologists recommend the following tips to maintain the results of any skin lighting treatment: Leading a healthy lifestyle. Using a good sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful sun rays.Is skin lightening bad for skin? ›
Fact sheet for the general public. Recent tests in Minnesota show that some skin lightening products have dangerous levels of mercury. Being exposed to the mercury in these products could cause serious health problems.Which is better brightening or lightening? ›
Lightening is reducing pigmentation and brightness is increasing radiance and glow of skin. Lightening has to do with discoloration and evening of skin tone. Brightening is more about restoring vibrancy to the skin.What happens when you stop using skin lightening creams? ›
After I stopped using skin lightening products, I had to wait 2 months to see the beginning of a change. My complexion was not uniform and I had many spots and pimples. 1 year later, I have no more spots. My complexion is gradually becoming more even as the spots are fading.Are lightening creams safe? ›
The active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, so bleaching can lead to mercury poisoning. Mercury is a toxic agent that can cause serious psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems.
A 2017 review notes that vitamin C use has been shown to impede melanin production. Melanin is the pigment responsible for skin color. By inhibiting melanin production, vitamin C can help fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation. It may also help brighten your skin's appearance.
A lightening agent (for dark spots) like hydroquinone, mulberry, licorice, or kojic acid can begin to work in days, but it usually takes weeks to see an appreciable reduction in pigment. If you see no difference in three or four weeks, it's probably not going to work.How long does it take for skin brightening cream to work? ›
They said the cream started to work after three to four weeks and required consistent application for visible results. Starts to show visible results after two to three weeks if you apply skin whitening creams twice weekly.How do celebrities lighten their skin? ›
One of the most popular way that help celebrities lighten their skin permanently is skin melanin treatment surgery. Those who adopted this method often had visible transformation of before and after. You can easily notice the changes in their complexion within a very short time.