Skin bleaching refers to the use of products to lighten dark areas of the skin or achieve an overall lighter complexion. These products include bleaching creams, soaps, and pills, as well as professional treatments like chemical peels and laser therapy.

There is no health benefit to skin bleaching. Results aren’t guaranteed and there’s evidence that skin lightening can result in serious side effects and complications.

From a medical standpoint, there’s no need to lighten the skin. But if you’re considering skin bleaching, it’s important to understand the risks.

Skin bleaching reduces the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment produced by cells called melanocytes. The amount of melanin in your skin is mostly determined by genetics.

People with dark skin have more melanin. Hormones, sunlight, and certain chemicals also affect melanin production.

When you apply a skin bleaching product to the skin, such as hydroquinone, it decreases the number of melanocytes in your skin. This can result in lighter skin and a more even appearance to the skin.

A number of countries have banned the use of skin bleaching products because of the dangers associated with them.

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also issued a notice that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognized as safe and effective. The products were deemed not safe for human use based on a review of evidence.

Skin bleaching has been associated with a number of adverse health effects.

Mercury poisoning

Some skin bleaching creams made outside of the United States have been linked to mercury toxicity. Mercury has been banned as an ingredient in skin lightening products in the United States, but products made in other countries still contain mercury.

In a 2014 study of 549 skin lightening creams bought online and in stores, nearly 12 percent contained mercury. About half of these products came from U.S. stores.

Signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning include:

Dermatitis

Case studies and reports have linked the use of skin bleaching products to contact dermatitis. This is inflammation of the skin caused by contact with certain substances.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:

Exogenous ochronosis

Exogenous ochronosis (EO) is a skin disorder that causes blue-black pigmentation. It usually occurs as a complication of long-term use of skin bleaching creams that contain hydroquinone. People who use it on large areas of the body or on the entire body are more likely to develop EO.

Steroid acne

Skin bleaching creams that contain corticosteroids can cause steroid acne.

Steroid acne mostly affects the chest, but can also show up on the back, arms, and other parts of the body with long-term use of corticosteroids.

Symptoms can include:

Nephrotic syndrome

Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder often caused by damage to the blood vessels in your kidneys responsible for filtering waste and excess water. It causes your body to excrete too much protein in your urine.

Skin lightening creams containing mercury have been associated with nephrotic syndrome.

Symptoms can include:

There are no specific health benefits to skin bleaching, but it can have a desirable cosmetic effect on the skin when used to treat certain skin conditions.

Minimizes dark spots

Skin bleaching treatments can reduce dark spots on the skin caused by sun damage, aging, and hormonal changes.

It can be beneficial for those who want to minimize skin discoloration, such as:

Reduces the appearance of acne scars

Some skin bleaching treatments may help fade acne scars. They won’t help with active inflammation and redness caused by a breakout, but they may reduce red or dark areas that linger after acne has healed.

Evens out skin tone

Skin lightening can even out skin tone by minimizing areas of hyperpigmentation, such as sun damage. It can also help reduce the appearance of freckles.

Use varies from product to product. Skin lightening creams are typically applied only to dark areas of skin once or twice a day.

To use a skin lightening cream, it’s advisable to follow the directions given by a doctor or on the packaging. This usually involves:

  • applying the product sparingly using clean hands or a cotton pad
  • avoiding contact with your surrounding skin, eyes, nose, and mouth
  • washing your hands thoroughly after use
  • avoiding touching the treated area against another person’s skin
  • applying sunscreen to prevent skin damage from UV exposure

Many of the skin lightening pills available on the market are taken once daily, though there is no evidence that these are effective.

The FDA does not consider OTC skin lightening products safe or effective. Products marketed as natural skin bleaching aids are not regulated by the FDA.

Most skin lightening products are not recommended for darker skin tones and could cause hyperpigmentation. Skin lightening treatments are also not recommended for use by children or people who are pregnant or nursing.

A doctor or dermatologist can prescribe a skin bleaching product based on your needs.

You can buy OTC skin bleaching products in cosmetic stores and beauty counters at department stores. But research the products carefully because of the potential side effects.

You’ve probably heard about DIY skin bleaching remedies like lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide. Some home remedies for hyperpigmentation have been shown to be somewhat effective.

Others are purely anecdotal and could even be risky. Lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide can irritate the skin and eyes, and cause other side effects.

As with other skin bleaching techniques, these home remedies are recommended for treating dark spots, not lightening a naturally dark skin.

Some of these home remedies include:

Skin bleaching is a personal choice that shouldn’t be made lightly. It has no health benefits and has been linked to a number of very serious side effects. If you’re considering skin bleaching, see your doctor or a dermatologist about the benefits and risks.