How Do Skin Lighteners Work? continued...
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 4%-6% 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.
Risks of Skin Lighteners
One of the most significant risks of using some skin lighteners is the potential exposure to mercury. One study found that nearly 1 out of every 4 skin lighteners made in Asia and sold outside the U.S. contained mercury.
There are other potential risks of skin lighteners. Those risks can include the following:
- Prolonged use can contribute to premature aging of skin.
- Long-term use may increase the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure. Always use sunscreen when using a skin lightener and going out in the sun.
- Steroids in some skin lighteners may increase risk for skin infections, skin thinning, acne, and poor wound healing.
- Applying steroids to large areas of skin may put you at risk for health problems related to steroid being absorbed by the body.
- Hydroquinone may cause unwanted and untreatable skin discoloration (ochronosis).
- Various bleaching agents, including natural ingredients, can cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.
Special Precautions When Using a Skin Lightener
- Talk to your doctor before using a skin lightener and ask for specific instructions for the product.
- Make sure there is no mercury in the product. Mercury is sometimes listed under other names, such as calomel, mercuric, mercurous, or mercurio.
- Make sure an over-the-counter skin lightener with hydroquinone has no more than 2% of that chemical.
- If a label lists hydroquinone but doesn't say how much it contains, don't assume it's safe to use. Some foreign products contain more hydroquinone than is allowed in the U.S. and some labels may not be accurate.
If you have any questions about a product you are considering, talk with your doctor or pharmacist to be certain it's safe. Your dermatologist may also recommend other treatment options, such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser treatments.