How they can harm your skin and what to do instead
Everyone uses personal care products, but did you know that certain beauty products can be a greater source of toxic chemical exposure than others? One widely used beauty product, in particular, has grown to become a hidden global health hazard. Known by many names—skin lightening, skin whitening, skin bleaching, or skin brightening—these products come in the form of creams, ointments, solutions, and gels with the purported promise of lightening one's skin (2-5). Although they may sound harmless, many of these products actually contain highly toxic active ingredients like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury, and with prolonged use have been linked to detrimental skin, kidney, and nervous system complications (6-8). The issues with skin lightening creams also go much further than the physical product—it has strong ties to racial prejudice, classism, and colonialism.
Read more to find out what chemicals go into skin lightening products and to learn more about the historical roots of racism and white privilege that lead to their continued use.
So, What's Inside?
Since skin lightening products often face inadequate regulation in many countries, this often allows manufacturers to include any ingredient they believe will improve the effectiveness of their product regardless of the potential health effects to the user (2,5,6,9,11). The globalization and weak regulatory scrutiny of these products are a few of the reasons why it is so difficult to determine a product's safety, especially since many products may not even contain an ingredients label or place of manufacture (11).
Well-known toxic ingredients in skin lightening products include hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury. Hydroquinone, one of the primary active ingredients in skin lightening products, has been shown to lead to permanent brown-black skin discoloration, partial or total loss of skin pigmentation, and damage or dysfunction of nerves when used extensively (6,11). Corticosteroids, another frequently used active ingredient, can cause skin fragility, thinning and wrinkling of the skin, abnormal hair growth over the body, and small blood vessel dilation when used for a prolonged period (6,7). Mercury, already an established and known cumulative toxin, is often still included in skin lightening products due to its ability to suppress and inhibit melanin production (6). Depending on the frequency of use and percentage of mercury content, it can lead to mercury toxicity and cause kidney, gastrointestinal, and central nervous system problems (10).
A Problem that Goes Beyond the Ingredient List
The practice of skin lightening has historic roots in colorism, classism, colonialism, racial prejudice, and white privilege and is common in most African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American countries as well as communities of color in the US and Europe (1-13). Although individuals with fair skin do use lightening products, especially for localized pigmentation, the majority of lightening products are intended for non-Caucasian consumers (2). For those that use these products, there is usually a cultural and historical perspective associating fairer skin with beauty, virtue, and privilege, as well as the belief that the fairer your skin, the greater your social advantage (8,12,13). The perceived benefits of having a lighter skin tone include enhanced marital prospects, job prospects, social status, and earning potential (12). The media and beauty industry have also been influential in reinforcing and perpetuating these beauty standards globally (6,8,13,14).
Due to the pervasiveness of these products, skin lightening has become a global public health hazard. To help combat this issue, scientists have called for more thorough safety evaluations of cosmetic products and the strict prohibition of mercury within them (9,10). However, banning an ingredient may not be enough, since there is evidence that hydroquinone is still found in skin lightening products despite it being banned in numerous countries (6). Scientists have also discovered products that contain toxic ingredients not listed on the packaging, such as mercury (6). This highlights the importance of not only better regulation of the manufacture and import of products, but also the need to increase public awareness about the dangers of toxic skin lightening and beauty product ingredients (6).
The disproportionate impact of these products on communities of color also makes this an important public health issue. According to numerous scientific studies looking at the environmental health and justice impacts of beauty products, its overall use is an understudied source of environmental chemical exposure, especially for women of color (1). A study in 2017 stated that women of color have higher levels of beauty product-related environmental chemicals in their bodies compared to white women, independent of socioeconomic status (1). Recognizing and challenging the historical roots of colorism, classism, colonialism, and racial prejudice are just as important to discontinuing the use of skin lightening creams as better regulation.
Alternatives to Skin Lightening Creams
To promote good skin health, it's recommended to wear sunscreen daily with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97% of the sun's UVB rays (15). We also recommend embracing your natural skin tone, since that is what makes you beautiful and unique! If you would still like to naturally brighten or even out your skin complexion in a safe and healthy way, we recommend gentle exfoliation and natural skin brightening options like Vitamin C, Vitamin B3 (niacinamide), and glycolic acid instead of the other toxic ingredients mentioned above (16). If possible, we also recommend purchasing clean beauty products free of toxic or potentially harmful ingredients. Sephora and Target have both launched clean beauty categories for skincare and makeup, and other brands and retailers such as Credo Beauty, Detox Market, and Follain focus exclusively on natural and clean beauty products.
All in all, we believe that there is beauty in all skin tones and want to empower you to feel beautiful and to know what's inside your beauty products so that you can make the best decisions for your skin, body, and health!