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Skin Lightening - Products, Treatment, and Their Side Effects

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Skin lightening is a treatment done on the skin to bleach and lighten the skin tone. The ingredient acts on the skin cells to decrease the level of melanin.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. V. Srikanth Reddy

Published At January 3, 2023
Reviewed AtJanuary 3, 2023


Skin-lightening agents are used to lighten skin tone by reducing the production of melanin; melanin is a pigment released by a hormone called melatonin which is responsible for giving brighter skin, hair, and eyes. Skin lightening agents help remove dark spots on the face, underarms, neck, hands, feet, bikini area, freckles, tanning, and uneven skin tone.

How Do Skin Lightening Products Act?

Skin-lightening products contain hydroquinone, alpha, and beta hydroxy acid, which inhibit the production of melanin which is formed from melanocyte cells; these lightening agents decrease the production of melanocyte cells produced by the melatonin hormone. There are many conditions that can cause the brightening of skin, like overexposure; ultraviolet rays can cause tanning of the skin; acne spots are post-acne marks; melasma is mostly seen on the forehead and cheeks looking like dark, patchy area; post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs due to inflammation of the skin that leaves behind dark spots, hormonal imbalance seen in Addison's disease shows a peculiar sign of skin darkening and freckles which are naturally present on cheeks.

What Is the Treatment Option for Skin Lightening?

The results of skin lightening treatment are not permanent and can last for some months to years, depending upon the care and maintenance taken; one must use good sunscreen with a minimum of sun protection factor 30 to protect skin from ultraviolet rays. One must also consume a balanced diet, drink sufficient water, and follow a basic skincare routine. Following are the treatment options for skin lightening:

  • Chemical peeling can help lighten skin; in this procedure, a chemical solution called alpha-hydroxy acid, which is extracted from a natural resource, is applied to the face to remove the upper layer of the damaged skin containing dead skin cells. The chemical solution comes in different concentrations. Depending upon the concentration, chemical peels can be light, medium, or deep. Chemical peels can help to remove tan, dark spots, and acne marks. This treatment will affect only the superficial surface of the skin.

  • Laser treatment can help with skin lightening. In this procedure, a concentrated beam of laser light is used to reduce the melanin pigment that is building up in the skin. The role of melanin pigment is to give color to the skin, hair, and eyes. This treatment is helpful in correcting the uneven pigmentation on the skin and other body parts and also in removing dark spots, sun tanning, and other blemishes on the skin.

  • Skin lightening creams and lotions are also available in a cosmetic store, containing acidic glycolic acid, lactic acid, hydroquinone, and azelaic acid, which are a type of alpha and beta hydroxy acid that have properties of bleaching and are helpful in lightening the skin. These ingredients are not safe to use in the long-term as they have side effects and are only to be used when prescribed by a healthcare provider.

  • Skin lightening injections are injected into the skin to enhance the skin tone; these injections contain glutathione which is produced from an enzyme called tyrosinase; some studies say that it is a safe drug, while some researches have shown that a high dose of glutathione has harmful effects on the skin. One must take the suggestion of a healthcare provider before planning the treatment.

What Are the Side Effects of Skin-lightening Products?

Skin-lightening products contain hydroquinone. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they are not recognized as safe and effective drugs, but they are still available by prescription. They are responsible for a disorder called exogenous ochronosis. This disorder is challenging to treat and shows permanent discoloration appearing black and blue on the skin.

Some skin-lightening agents also contain corticosteroids, which can lead to skin breakouts and leave open pores, increasing the risk of dermatitis and skin irritation. Some skin lightening agents may also contain mercury; which is harmful to living beings. It can show signs of confusion, muscle weakness, nephrotic syndrome, fatigue, loss of appetite, blurring of vision, low energy, and swelling.

What Are the Harmful Effects of Skin Lightening Treatment?

Due to the social stigma of looking fair, many people undergo skin-lightening treatment; however, despite the benefits of the treatment, some harmful effects should be noted. They are as follows:

  • Skin lightening treatment can cause skin cancer. Some solutions and drugs used in skin lightening treatment have shown carcinogenic properties that can cause skin cancer and damage the liver cells.

  • Repetitive undergoing skin lightening treatment can cause thinning of the skin due to excessive removal of the outer skin; which can further lead to rupturing of the blood vessels present in the skin, causing bruising and scarring of the skin.

  • Due to the continuous exposure to harsh chemicals used for skin lightening, skin cells lose their ability of self-healing property, making skin more prone to skin allergies and inflammation.

  • Some chemicals used in the treatment are harsh and cause burning, irritation, and itching on the skin; these medicines are contraindicated in people suffering from skin diseases like dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, and hypersensitive skin.

  • The Ecowaste Coalition chemical safety campaign and World Health Organization have issued a guideline to ban skin-lightening products containing mercury levels of more than 1mg/kg. Considering these guidelines, the Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use and sale of marketing and advertisement of bleaching agents. Such strict guidelines should be made compulsory worldwide.


Skin lightening treatment has gained much popularity due to its promotion by digital media marketing as skin lightening products and treatments help in lightening the skin tone. However, as per the skin type, treatment modalities may change from person to person, and it is best advised that before considering any product or treatment, one must consult a healthcare provider for better, safe, and effective results.

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Dr. V. Srikanth Reddy
Dr. V. Srikanth Reddy



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