Uneven skin can lead you to try skin-lightening products, but their effects can be minimal, and the risks are high. The best way to protect your skin is to wear sunscreen regularly and talk with a dermatologist.

From freckles and age spots to scarring, many things can make your complexion look uneven. While harmless, uneven skin may prompt some people to try various skin-lightening products.

While there are many skin-lightening products and solutions on the market, they aren’t all created equal, and some could even be dangerous. Knowing what to look for can help you choose a safe option if you find yourself wanting a more even complexion.

Hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, can be caused by acne scars, excessive sun exposure, or hormonal changes, according to David E. Bank, MD, of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

“There are a variety of creams and serums that patients can use to help lighten, brighten, and diminish dark areas over time,” he said.

Each of these treatment options come with some risks. Read on to find which option may work best for you.

Perhaps the most popular solution for skin lightening on a spot-by-spot basis is topical solutions containing hydroquinone.

A 2013 study found potential benefits for facial melasma, which causes patches of discoloration. More research is needed to determine the full scope of effectiveness.

While previously available over-the-counter (OTC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed the status of hydroquinone in 2021 and it is now only available as a prescription.

While deemed safe for use in cosmetic products, the concentration of hydroquinone is limited because it poses greater risks at higher concentrations.

In fact, in South Africa, it’s not legal for any use at all. It’s also classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” in Canada.

There are concerns that this ingredient could cause cancer, but the existing research is limited.

It’s recommended that people only use products containing hydroquinone on a short-term basis, if at all. If you experience irritation, unusual darkening of the skin, or any other side effects, stop using it immediately.

Products like Retin-A and Renova are an alternate solution. They contain retinoic acid, which works to increase cell turnover, speed up exfoliation, and promote new, healthy skin growth.

There is clinical research linking retinoids and improvements in skin photoaging, including on Black skin.

These ingredients can be considerably drying and make the skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays. If you opt for these solutions, understand that they can take a few months or longer to work. Make sure you wear sunscreen every day.

A more aggressive option for lightening dark spots is laser treatment, which uses concentrated light energy. Some laser treatments target the pigment itself, while others work by removing the skin layer by layer.

With this method, the darkened layers of skin are burned off.

There are several different types of laser treatment. This solution works faster than topical products. But, needless to say, there are risks.

With laser skin lightening, you may experience:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • tightness
  • scarring
  • infection
  • changes in the skin’s texture

Chemical exfoliating products typically use various types of gentle acids to break up dead skin cells, or the top layer of the skin. Removing this layer can help reveal healthier and more evenly toned skin beneath.

Though many are less irritating than physical exfoliators like sugar scrubs, they, too, can cause skin irritation.

Chemical exfoliants use ingredients such as:

These can be bought over the counter, or in stronger forms from a doctor or dermatologist.

It’s important to use chemical exfoliants sparingly since your skin needs time to rebuild and repair. Using a product more often than intended can lead to irritation or inflammation.

Some skin is more sensitive to different chemical products. If you experience any side effects, discontinue using that product.

Warning about injectable products

Injectable skin lightening or bleaching products have been determined to be both unsafe and ineffective by the FDA. They have the potential to contain harmful ingredients or contaminants.

If you have used any injectable products for skin lightening and have any adverse effects, reach out to a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

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You can find OTC products that claim skin lightening and “correcting” abilities via natural ingredients. According to Bank, common compounds in these products include:

There are still some risks with these products. Your skin could have a sensitivity or allergic reaction to nearly anything — “natural” products included.

For most people, the effects of skin lightening products are minimal when compared with the risks.

Avoiding skin damage in the first place is typically the best solution. Taking care to protect your skin even after you have spots will keep them from worsening.

“Strict sun protection is key in fading dark spots,” said Bank. “Using products with blocking ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is crucial, otherwise the spots can come back even after removal.”

Contacting a dermatologist will likely steer you toward the options with the best outlook and least risks.