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.
Mercury is a toxic agent that can cause serious psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems. Pregnant women who use a skin lightener with mercury can pass the mercury to their unborn child. 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. still contain mercury.
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How they 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 is hydroquinone.
The regulations say 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.
The health risks
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 contained mercury.
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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 a broad-spectrum sunscreen when using a skin lightener and going outside.
- 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