Evaluating the Safety of Skin Bleaching Products and Procedures

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Skin bleaching is a cosmetic procedure using products that lighten your skin tone. Using these products can have negative health consequences.

Sometimes, people want to lighten patches of skin that have become abnormally dark due to medical issues. This is considered safe when the right products are used. 

However, when it comes to lightening the natural color of your skin—all over your body—many health officials warn against skin bleaching. Instead, if you still wish to proceed, visit a dermatologist, who can provide safe alternatives.

This article explores the skin-bleaching process, safety concerns, and potential side effects.

Natural remedies for skin lightening

Andrei Zonenko / Getty Images

Skin Bleaching vs. Skin Lightening

Skin bleaching refers to using cosmetic products to make skin lighter. The term "skin lightening" is more often used for products and treatments that lighten areas of hyperpigmentation (skin that’s become darker) from: 

  • Freckles
  • Age
  • Sun exposure
  • Acne scars
  • Pregnancy

Skin Bleaching: A Cosmetic Procedure

Practiced for centuries, skin bleaching is common worldwide. An analysis of 68 studies found that out of nearly 68,000 people, 27.7% had attempted to bleach their skin at some point in their lifetime. 

The growing global market for skin lighteners is estimated to reach more than $12 billion by 2027. Some people with dark skin are willing to pay large amounts for a lighter skin tone, driving growth in the skin-bleaching market.

However, skin bleaching is not a medically necessary procedure. Instead, it’s often undertaken due to misguided racial and cultural beliefs that light skin is more attractive than dark skin.

Can It Be Done?

Sometimes people can successfully lighten their all-over skin tone. Certain ingredients, such as a combination of hydroquinone (a depigmentation agent) and topical steroids, can stop your skin cells from producing melanin (pigment).

However, it doesn’t always work, and results may be uneven, leaving some patches darker than others. You should also consider safety before trying to bleach your skin.

Other Terms to Watch For

In marketing and advertising, skin-bleaching products are often called skin-lightening or skin-brightening products.

Safety Concerns

Skin-bleaching creams can be safe for conditions that cause the skin to darken, such as melasma related to pregnancy, and when overseen by a dermatologist. Still, experts warn against using products that lighten the overall color of your skin since many of them contain potentially dangerous ingredients.

In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered products containing hydroquinone be removed from the market, calling them unsafe and ineffective. Some hydroquinone products are still available by prescription so that qualified medical providers can oversee their use.

Products made outside the United States are of real concern because they don’t always have ingredient lists, or they may contain ingredients that aren’t listed. This means they may contain dangerously high levels of medicinal or dangerous substances at any level.

Examples of problem ingredients include mercury and arsenic. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that can cause skin irritation, difficulty breathing, insomnia, headaches, weakness, unintended weight loss, and more. Mercury poisoning is a serious condition that requires emergency medical attention.

Arsenic exposure can lead to patchy skin coloring, skin lesions, and cancer.

Side Effects 

In addition to giving you an uneven skin tone or lighter skin than you intended, other potential side effects of skin-bleaching products may include:

Less often, these products may lead to exogenous ochronosis, a rare but permanent side effect of long-term hydroquinone use that causes blue and purple pigmentation in your skin.

Some products can also aggravate the effects of sunlight on your skin. Be sure to take extra steps to shield your skin from the sun and use sunscreen when you can’t avoid exposure.

Medical Skin Bleaching vs. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Cosmetic Products

Professional skin bleaching in a dermatologist’s office may include a variety of products and procedures, including:

Each of these treatments comes with potential side effects. However, since you’re under the care of a licensed medical professional, they’re considered safer than using at-home skin-lightening products unsupervised.

Skin-Bleaching Product Application 

If you do opt for using skin-bleaching products at home, you can protect yourself by:

  • Only buying products produced in the United States
  • Checking the labels for unsafe ingredients
  • Using the topical products such as creams as directed

It’s also a good idea to involve your dermatologist or a healthcare provider in your decision to bleach your skin and in product selection. Healthcare providers often recommend stopping the treatment after three or four months.

Alternative Skin-Bleaching Treatments

Research into potentially safer skin-bleaching ingredients is in its early stages. In addition, the research primarily addresses hyperpigmentation, not all-over skin bleaching.

Preliminary studies suggest some safer lightening products include: 

  • Kojic acid
  • Tranexamic acid
  • Niacinamide
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Azelaic acid
  • Aloesin
  • Mulberry
  • Licorice extracts
  • Lignin peroxidase
  • Ellagic acid
  • Arbutin
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric
  • Soy

These products may still have risks and side effects. Discuss products containing these or other ingredients with your healthcare provider before using them.

Skin Bleaching: Cultural Challenges and Stigma

The desire for skin bleaching is mainly culturally and racially based. In the United States, racist attitudes affect beauty standards and cause light skin to be considered more desirable and attractive than dark skin.

Even among people of color, some cultural attitudes hold that lighter skin is favorable. Marketing and advertising promote these beliefs, as well.

Researchers advise that racist, colorist, and cultural attitudes must shift away from idealizing light skin in order for dangerous and costly skin-bleaching practices to be abandoned.


Skin bleaching is a growing practice among dark-skinned people who may internalize racist and cultural ideals that hold light skin in higher regard. Many skin-bleaching products contain dangerous ingredients that can have far-reaching health effects. Skin bleaching involves the whole body and is different from skin lightening used for smaller areas of hyperpigmentation due to age, sun damage, or medical conditions.

Products made outside the United States may contain dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic, and hydroquinone. A safer way to lighten your skin is to see a dermatologist for procedures and products that are proven safe and effective. 

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.