What You Need to Know About Skin Lightening and Whitening Creams - The Dermatology Review

What You Need to Know About Skin Lightening and Whitening Creams



Skin lightening, also referred to as skin whitening and skin bleaching, is when a chemical substance is used to lighten the skin and/or even out the color by reducing the melanin (the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color) in the skin. While numerous chemicals have proven to be effective in lightening the skin, several have been deemed toxic and dangerous and were even banned in many countries — including the U.S.

Even so, skin whitening creams continue to play a significant role in the beauty market. According to Stratistics MRC, the Global Skin Lightening Products Market accounted for $4075.00 million in 2017 and is expected to reach $8011.17 million by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 7.8% during the forecast period. Luckily, there are skin lightening creams that are safe. However, it’s crucial to decipher the good from the bad, including the adverse side effects you could ensue should you make the wrong choice. To help you out, here’s everything you need to know about skin lightening and whitening creams.

Why Do People Lighten Their Skin?

Skin lightening has a deep history, which began in the Victorian era (though Asians were experimenting even earlier) when powder and paint were used as what you could consider an early day foundation. European women didn’t know the dangers of lead paint — including Queen Elizabeth I, who developed arsenic poisoning. During this time, white women wished to look even more white as it symbolized purity.

Skin bleaching is also linked to African Americans during the slave trade, as those with lighter skin were seen as more intelligent, astute, and experienced. In contrast, those with dark skin were more subjected to arduous manual labor. This is a very controversial topic as it symbolizes the beginnings of white supremacy. However, skin lightening is common among non-white populations worldwide as it’s linked to deep historical, economic, sociocultural, and psychosocial roots. While there’s been a lot of research on African people concerning skin lightening, it’s also a widespread practice in Jamaica and other Afro-Caribbean countries. Initially, it was done in response to the working class’s economic and complexion-related oppression, but today it’s more of a fashion statement.

Throughout Asia, the concept of skin whitening is not new. In fact, it’s been around since ancient times when the Chinese believed that pearl powder could lighten one’s complexion. One reason why the Asian culture chooses to lighten their skin is the desire to look younger — a study revealed advertisements in four Asian countries portrayed “good” skin as smooth and white and “bad” skin as dark with wrinkles. Other driving forces include the desire to show a sign of high social class or to emulate a famous actor or singer. The preference to have white skin has fueled the skin lightening industry, with lightning products accounting for 60% of sales in the Asian skincare market.

People worldwide from different population groups and other geographic areas lighten their skin. Still, the exact numbers are unknown since some individuals are hesitant about admitting the practice because of the stigma surrounding the concept of altering one’s skin color. But cultural or social influence isn’t the only reason why people are lightening their skin. Hyperpigmentation also plays a huge role, which leads us to our next point.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is a common and typically harmless skin condition identified by patches of the skin that become darker than the normal skin. As the name suggests, hyperpigmentation is precipitated by an overproduction of melanin. The main factors for increasing melanin include sun exposure, age, fluctuating hormones, inflammation, and skin injuries. There are three main types of hyperpigmentation:

  • Sun (or Age) Spots: Sunspots — small, darkened patches of skin — occur from an overabundance of sun exposure that was likely unprotected. With that said, these spots tend to pop up on exposed areas such as the face, neck, décolleté, hands, and arms.
  • Melasma: Though harmless, melasma (otherwise known as chloasma) can make people (especially women) feel self-conscious. Melasma is a skin condition where large patches — typically light and dark brown and/or blue-gray in color — of hyperpigmentation develop on the face. They can pop up as larger flat patches or smaller freckle-like spots. Melasma is typically referred to as the “mask of pregnancy” because it affects pregnant women — 15%-50% of pregnant women get it. The condition typically worsens in the summer (again, the sun) and improves in the winter. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is a common skin disorder. Between 1.5% and 33% of the population may get melasma, typically starting between 20 and 40 years of age.
  • Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: This type of hyperpigmentation occurs when there is trauma or injury to the skin, which causes a flat discolored patch. Those with chronic acne or who regularly receive cosmetic procedures like dermabrasion are susceptible to this condition.

    How Do Skin Lightening Creams Work?

    Skin lighteners contain an active ingredient (or a combination of) that curtail the amount of melanin in the skin where it is applied topically.

    Dangers of Skin Lightening Creams

    Skin whitening and lightening creams continue to grow in popularity despite being associated with profound adverse effects on the skin and overall well-being. Several countries have banned the use of skin bleaching products for this very reason. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a notice stating that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognized as safe and effective based on copious evidence.

    Unfortunately, even though the USA and European union have stricter and stronger regulations, consumers still have easy access to various dangerous legal and illegal skin-bleaching products. We’re talking about prescription-strength hydroquinone and topical corticosteroids that can be purchased via the internet, immigration, and world travel. Here’s a rundown of the ingredients to avoid (and why) when looking for a skin whitening cream.

    Hydroquinone 2-4%

    • Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, pigmented lesions, exogenous ochronosis (a cutaneous disorder characterized by blue-black pigmentation), contact dermatitis.
    • Severe Reactions: Fetal growth retardation, peripheral neuropathy (a condition that occurs when nerves that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord from and to the rest of the body become damaged or diseased.)



      • Adverse Effects: Photosensitivity, retinoid dermatitis, peeling, erythema.
      • Severe Reactions: Fetal complications, hepatic toxicity, thyroid dysfunction.

          Steroids (Clobetasol, Betamethasone)

          • Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, folliculitis, acne, telangiectasias, perioral dermatitis, atrophy, hypertrichosis.
          • Severe Reactions: Cushing syndrome, adrenal insufficiency, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, hypertension, steroid addiction syndrome.

            Arbutin 1%

            • Adverse Effects: Irritation, erythema, contact dermatitis, the ability to hydrolyze into hydroquinone in alkaline conditions.
            • Severe Reactions: N/A


                • Adverse Effects: Irritation, contact dermatitis.
                • Severe Reactions: Vision loss, burns, hepatic toxicity, neurotoxicity-seizures.

                  Tranexamic Acid

                  • Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, abdominal pain and bloating, alopecia.
                  • Severe Reactions: Vascular thrombosis, pulmonary embolism.


                    • Adverse Effects: Cramping, bloating, contact dermatitis.
                    • Severe Reactions: Thyroid dysfunction; Stevens-Johnson syndrome; hepatic, neurologic, and renal toxicity.


                        • Adverse Effects: Xerosis, burning, irritation, sulfur odor.
                        • Severe Reactions: N/A

                          The Top 10 Skin-Safe Lightening Ingredients

                          When looking for a natural skin lightening cream, keep an eye out for the following ingredients.

                          Vitamin C
                          While vitamin C is a safe skin-lightening (and brightening) ingredient, it’s also an anti-aging powerhouse that provides potent antioxidant protection, builds collagen, and helps soften fine lines and wrinkles.

                          Kojic Acid
                          While this ingredient can cause contact dermatitis in high doses (1-2%), it’s still considered a natural skin lightener (a by-product of malted rice) that ceases the production of an enzyme necessary for melanin production.

                          AKA, pro-vitamin B3, niacinamide fights acne, balances oil, calms inflammation, boosts ceramides, fights free radicals, and (of course) lightens.

                          Azelaic Acid
                          This ingredient has the same pH level as your skin (5.5), so along with lightening, it’s excellent for calming chronic redness (especially for chronic conditions like rosacea) and even out the skin tone.

                          Derived from the bearberry plant, when used in a 1-2% concentration, alpha-arbutin can be one of the most effective natural skin lighteners. It works similarly to kojic acid by inhibiting tyrosinase enzymes.

                          Glycolic Acid
                          While you may know glycolic acid as an effective exfoliant for the skin, you may not know that it’s also an efficient lightener. It works to impede melanin production because of the increased cell turnover rate. It can even boost the results of other natural skin lighteners, like kojic acid, for example.

                          Licorice Extract
                          This power-packed extract contains a bevy of actives, some of which hinder tyrosinase activity, while others have their own signature lightening abilities.

                          There’s still not enough research on how well this robust antioxidant works on its own, so it’s best when used in a product with a blend of natural skin lighteners — like kojic acid, for example.

                          Paper Mulberry
                          This natural skin lightener is a bit more new to the scene. Still, some researchers find that it may be even more effective than dangerous hydroquinone — bonus points for protecting against free radical damage.

                          Linoleic Acid
                          LA works similarly to glycolic acid in that it speeds up cell turnover rate, but it may also curtail melanin production directly. You may not be aware, but linoleic acid is in natural plant oils such as evening primrose, rosehip, and grapeseed oils.

                          Skin Lightening for Black and Brown Skin — Controversy?

                          Even if it’s done by choice, there’s no doubt that there’s controversy surrounding the skin bleaching of black and brown skin. However, in some countries, it’s a topic that’s more accepted and widely advertised (not in America due to enforcements by the FDA.) In the United States, there’s more political correctness because white supremacy comes to mind — especially when #blacklivesmatter came into existence in July of 2013.

                          Many brands such as L’Oréal, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson have pulled their skin-lightening products due to colorism: a type of prejudice that places a higher value on lighter-skinned individuals. Letters were even sent to Amazon in droves to pull lightening products from their virtual shelves. There have been several strong campaigns worldwide (#unfairandlovely, #reclaimthebindi; the nonprofit campaign Dark is Beautiful in India, and countless others) to help fight colorism while giving men and women the confidence to embrace their skin color and heritage.

                          The Best Skin Lightening Products

                          We’re not going to tell you who or why you should use a skin lightening cream. However, if you want to fade melasma (aka pregnancy mask) or those sunspots you got from one too many unprotected beach vacations in Mexico, here are some of the best skin safe lightening creams and skincare products you can try.

                          Formulyst Dark Spot Solutions, $79: Developed for daily use, Formulyst’s Dark Spots Solution Serum targets the appearance of dark spots and uneven skin tone caused by hyperpigmentation. Formulated with HyWhite — an alpha-linolenic acid that helps to lighten the appearance of dark spots and visibly improve the uniformity of the skin color — and a lightweight molecular hyaluronic acid — which gives an instant moisture boost — this powerful serum intensely nourishes skin while visibly improving the tone of the complexion.

                          Formulyst Retexturizing and Perfecting Serum, $39: Expertly formulated to gently exfoliate, clean, and refine pores, Retexturing and Perfecting Serum maximizes an active AHA complex, removing dead cells and visibly revealing brighter, healthier skin. Lightweight and non-drying, this refining daily formula delivers perceptible improvement to your skin’s tone and texture while also reducing the appearance of uneven, blotchy skin.

                          Meladerm Skin Lightening/Whitening Cream, $49.99: More than a decade ago, Civant set out to create a powerful skin brightening product free from harsh bleaching ingredients that can irritate the skin. The result is Meladerm, a skin lightening cream packed with natural extracts such as mulberry, licorice, and bearberry plants – unlike other whitening products on the market, Meladerm does not contain hydroquinone, kojic acid, or steroids. The formula targets hyperpigmentation such as acne scars, melasma, and uneven skin tone.

                          iS Clinical White Lightening Serum, $130: This lightweight serum is packed with natural ingredients to help fade dark spots and smooth out fine lines. Some of the star ingredients are sugar cane, bilberry leaf, and Norwegian sea kelp extract, which all helps to exfoliate the skin and stimulate new skin cells. Alpha-Arbutin, an extract of the bearberry plant, helps control hyperpigmentation production, while mushroom extract prevents the spread of bacteria. White willow bark extract unclogs pores. The result? Clear, clean, and brighter skin.

                          SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense, $98: All skin types can benefit from this power-packed serum that’s formulated with a blend of safe anti-discoloration ingredients (kojic acid, niacinamide, tranexamic acid, HEPES) that work together synergistically to brighten and lighten with continued use. Clinical studies show users saw a 60% average improvement of pigmentation after 12 weeks.

                          Epionce MelanoLyte Pigment Perfection Serum, $100: In this lightening serum, the powerhouse ingredients are all derived from nature- including apricot kernel oil, lemon balm, pea extract, meadowfoam, turmeric, and date fruit. MelanoLyte Pigment Perfection Serum is part of Epionce’s skin brightening system, which helps treat hyperpigmentation and dark spots. The formula is free from retinol and hydroquinone, which make it ideal for sensitive skin.

                          SK-II Cellumination Deep Surge EX, $150: A bottle of SK-II’s Facial Treatment Essence is sold every two seconds. It’s designed to help reduce dark spots’ appearance and brighten the skin while also making it feel soft. It can be used in conjunction with this light daily moisturizer formulated with Aura Bright Cocktail EX with Pitera to deeply hydrate, even out skin color, and boost its luminosity.

                          Mario Badescu Whitening Mask, $24: If you’re looking to tackle discoloration and dehydration, this mask is for you. Mario Badescu’s Whitening Mask contains natural ingredients such as kojic acid and extracts of licorice root, mulberry, and grapeseed, which help improve uneven skin tone but are gentle enough for sensitive skin. Olive leaf extract and vitamin E add hydration, while beeswax locks in vitamins and moisture, leaving dull complexions looking brighter and more refreshed.

                          Neostrata Pigment Controller, $74: This brightening treatment from Neostrata is packed with an arsenal of natural ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation. Neostrata Pigment Controller contains a blend of natural whiteners and plant extracts and vitamins, and antioxidants. One of the key components is SabiWhite, derived from turmeric root. It lightens skin and fights free-radical damage, and is a natural alternative to hydroquinone. NeoGlucosamine is a proprietary blend that exfoliates dark spots and increases cell turnover rate. Rounding out the formula is retinol to boost skin renewal and stabilized vitamin C to even out even skin tone and brighten the complexion.

                          The Final Word

                          Skin lightening, also referred to as skin whitening and skin bleaching, is when a chemical substance is used to lighten the skin and/or even out the color by reducing the skin’s melanin. While numerous chemicals have proven to be effective in lightening the skin, several have been deemed toxic and dangerous and were even banned in many countries — including the U.S. Some examples include hydroquinone, mercury, steroids, and camphor, among others. On the flip side, skin-safe lightening ingredients such as vitamin C, niacinamide, glycolic acid, and kojic acid can also help with skin conditions such as hyperpigmentation without any adverse effects or severe reactions.

                          Globally, the history of skin lighteners and brighteners goes way back for many reasons, ranging from culture to showcasing a place in society. However, in modern times, society is working hard to remove the stigma of colorism: a type of prejudice that places a higher value on lighter-skinned individuals. However, if you want to remove sun spots or melasma (aka pregnancy mask) you acquired from having a baby, there are some safe skin lightening creams and other skincare products you can try.

                          Global Skin Lightening Products Market is Expected to Reach $8011.17 Million by 2026,” Cision PR Newswire, August 2019.
                          Skin Bleaching and Dermatologic Health of African and Afro-Caribbean Populations in the US: New Directions for Methodologically Rigorous, Multidisciplinary, and Culturally Sensitive Research,” US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, December 2016.
                          Who’s the fairest of Them All? Television Ads for Skin-Whitening Cosmetics in Hong Kong,” Taylor & Francis Online, August 2006.
                          The Dark Side of Skin Lightening: An International Collaboration and Review of a Public Health Issue Affecting Dermatology,” ScienceDirect, September 2020.
                          Melasma,” Cleveland Clinic.
                          Rulemaking History for OTC Skin Bleaching Drug Products,” US Food & Drug Administration, October 2017.
                          Federal Register, August 2006.
                          Exogenous Ochronosis,” US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, November-December 2015.
                          Skin Bleaching and Dermatologic Health of African and Afro-Caribbean Populations in the US: New Directions for Methodologically Rigorous, Multidisciplinary, and Culturally Sensitive Research,” US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, December 2016.

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