Skin lightening creams, also called bleaching agents or faders, are used to fade dark patches on the skin or in some cases to make a person’s entire complexion seem lighter. They may be prescribed by a doctor to treat skin conditions that cause uneven coloring, and are sold over the counter at beauty supply stores and lightening creams

While these products often promise to gently lighten the skin and help it look brighter and more radiant, it’s good to exercise caution about these products. Consider how they work and why you may want to reconsider their use.

How the skin gets its color

To better understand how these creams work and why they may be risky, it’s best to first understand how skin gets its color. Melanin is a compound of the skin that determines its color; the more melanin you have, the darker your skin.

Typically your melanin levels are determined by genetics; however, exposure to the sun, certain medications, and topical creams can cause the skin to produce more melanin. In those cases a person’s entire complexion can become darker or they may develop dark spots in certain areas.

In some cases these changes can fade over time, such as when your vacation tan fades once you leave your tropical resort. Once you stop taking certain medications your skin may go back to its lighter shade. However, for darker spots that are permanent, some might resort to a skin bleaching cream.

How do skin lightening creams work?

A skin lightening cream will have an ingredient or combination of ingredients that stop the production of melanin so that an area of skin will look lighter. THe most popular ingredient is hydroquinone. When used on small patches of skin this can help to fade age spots or even out areas where skin color is noticeably different, such as for those who suffer from vitiligo. This condition causes large patches of skin to produce less melanin or causes skin cells to actually die off so that a person’s skin can look white in some areas.

Are skin bleaching creams dangerous at all?

One reason that skin lightening creams are dangerous is that some contain mercury; this ingredient is banned in the U.S. but products produced outside the country may still have high levels of this substance.

Mercury is highly toxic and a person can suffer mercury poisoning from using these, especially if they use these creams on their entire body to lighten their complexion all over. Even when used in smaller areas of the body, too much mercury in the system can cause kidney problems, neurological disorders, and even psychiatric disorders.

Other risks include premature aging of the skin and increased risk of some skin cancers from extended use, and various adverse reactions from steroids, hydroquinone and other ingredients used in many of these products.

For those who are concerned about dark spots or patches on their skin, a doctor can typically offer safer solutions than these creams and faders. Chemical peels or light therapy can treat affected areas of the skin or they may have prescription creams that lighten the skin with safer ingredients. Body makeup can also cover certain dark patches for those who are self-conscious about uneven skin tone.

The bottom line is, you may want to consider other options before using skin lightening creams on a daily basis for years on end. If there’s a more natural way to go about it, it’s worth exploring. You definitely want to steer clear of any lightening cream with mercury. There is just too much risk involved and the reward is not worth it.