Skin lightening products -- also known as bleaching creams, whiteners, skin brighteners, or fade -- work by reducing a pigment called melanin in the skin. Most people who use lighteners do so to treat skin problems such as age spots, acne scars, or discoloration related to hormones. It is also a technique used to lighten naturally dark skin.
Skin lightening products do come with some risks. As with any new product, be sure to read the label and know the facts before you buy and apply a skin lightener.
What Determines Skin Color?
Skin color is determined by the amount of melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment produced by specialized cells called melanocytes. People with dark skin have more melanin.
How much melanin your skin has is mainly a matter of your genetic makeup. Sunlight exposure, hormones, skin damage, and exposure to certain chemicals can also affect melanin production.
Changes in skin color will often resolve themselves. For instance, tans fade when the amount of direct exposure to sunlight is reduced. But over time, certain discolorations, such as "age" spots or "liver" spots, become more or less permanent.
What Is Skin Bleaching?
Skin bleaching is a cosmetic treatment to reduce the prominence of skin discolorations and even out the color of the skin. You can buy bleaching creams over the counter and by prescription.
Some people apply skin lightener to their entire body to change their complexion, but this can be very risky. The active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, so bleaching can lead to mercury poisoning.
The use of mercury as an ingredient in skin lighteners is banned in the U.S. However, some skin lighteners produced outside the U.S. may still contain mercury.
How Do Skin Lighteners Work?
Skin lighteners contain an active ingredient or a combination of ingredients that reduces the amount of melanin in the skin where it is applied.
The most widely used ingredient in skin lighteners sold in the U.S. is hydroquinone.
The FDA regulates the use of hydroquinone in the U.S. Over-the-counter skin lighteners can contain up to 2% hydroquinone. Dermatologists can write prescriptions for lighteners that contain up to 4% hydroquinone.
It's important to check with your doctor before using a product with hydroquinone and to follow the doctor's directions exactly.
Other skin lighteners use drugs such as steroids and retinoic acid, which comes from vitamin A, as active ingredients. And some skin lighteners use natural ingredients such as kojic acid -- a compound that comes from a fungus -- and arbutin, a compound found in various plants.