Everyone wants to have clear, healthy skin. Whether it’s acne scars, melasma, or even birthmarks, many people purchase skin lightening creams to deal with cosmetic skin problems. Often, these products are easy to use and can be effective in evening skin tone when you’re dealing with genetic or hormonal blemishes.

Sometimes, though, this desire for beautiful skin goes deeper than blemishes. Around the world, skin lightening treatments with dangerous toxins are often used to whiten complexions due to fear of prejudices against darker skin tones.

Skin lightening has been common for centuries, so it’s not surprising that there are many reasons for why people seek skin lightening and what treatments they try. But just like the ingredients in your food or the filter system of your drinking water, it’s important to be aware of what you might be exposing your body to.

A Brief History of Skin Lightening

Skin lightening practices date at least as far back as the Elizabethan Era. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, people went to extreme measures to achieve what was considered beautiful skin.

At the time, society associated wealth and power with pale skin untanned by long hours spent outdoors. The paler your skin, the higher your status. And in those days, aristocrats went to great lengths to raise their status.

Many consider Queen Elizabeth I to be the most famous historical example of skin lightening in this period. Like many aristocrats, Queen Elizabeth I used Venetian ceruse to give her appearance a ghostly pallor.

Also known as the ‘Spirits of Saturn,’ Venetian ceruse was the most popular cosmetic of the period. Sixteenth century cosmeticians made ceruse from a poisonous mixture of white lead and vinegar. This toxic cream caused hair loss, skin damage, and eventually death. The desire for paler skin spread worldwide from there as Europeans colonized around the world.

Skin Lightening Practices Around the World

While in the United States, most skin lightening (or skin brightening as it is commonly called) is for small blemishes and fixing uneven skin tone. Skin lightening practices that lighten the whole body are far more common and accepted in other parts of the world such as Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Countries in these regions tend to have much weaker regulations on medical products and procedures.

For many people across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, lightening one’s skin has very strong socioeconomic incentives. Studies have shown lighter-skinned individuals often have better job opportunities and are paid more for doing the same work as their darker-skinned counterparts. And in many societies, it is believed that lighter-skinned individuals have an easier time finding a wife or husband.

As a result, people with darker complexions often risk their health by using harsh chemicals and carcinogens to lighten their skin. Luckily, some countries are beginning to fight back with policy. Several West African nations including Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are now taking the issue very seriously. Ghana has banned hydroquinone due to its effects on the body. Hydroquinone can cause itchy, burning skin and it’s not uncommon for the chemical to also cause darker skin.

The Toxic Ingredient in Some Skin Lightening Creams

Mercury is an extremely toxic chemical that can damage the human body’s nervous, digestive and immune systems. It can also lead to insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Unfortunately, it is also an active ingredient in many of today’s popular skin lightening creams.

Though skin creams containing mercury are illegal to sell in the United States (as well as throughout most of the developed world), a number of U.S. consumers report purchasing skin lightening creams that have tested positive for mercury in the lab. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on these alarming incidents.

Prominent dermatologist Dr. Eliot F. Battle Jr. has seen many cases of skin damage due to mercury poisoning while treating a diverse set of clients who have used skin lightening products. Dr. Battle has noted an increase in recent years as the Internet has made many unregulated and unsafe products easier to buy.

The Adverse Side Effects of Steroids

Many skin lightening creams do not contain mercury. But steroids and other active ingredients in skin lightening products also have adverse side effects. Ingredients with a strong likelihood of causing negative health effects include hydroquinone, clobetasol propionate, or corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone.

These are extremely potent chemicals that are prescription-only in many countries. The FDA is presently considering new restrictions on hydroquinone to prevent products that contain it from being sold over the counter.

Another common ingredient, clobetasol propionate, is the most potent topical steroid available to dermatologists. When used incorrectly, clobetasol propionate causes hypertension, permanent stretch marks, elevated blood sugar and suppression of the body’s natural steroids. It’s illegal to use without a doctor’s prescription, but it remains an ingredient in many popular skin lightening creams.

Most dermatologists agree that it’s best to steer clear of any product containing hydroquinone, clobetasol propionate, or corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone unless using it under a doctor’s direction.

Intravenous Glutathione: A New Skin Lightening Technique with Unknown Side Effects

Intravenous glutathione is a relatively new technique many people are using to achieve an even, lighter skin tone. Intravenous glutathione treatments are meant to eliminate scars and blotches while lightening skin color overall.

Glutathione is an antioxidant naturally found in human cells. Advocates claim glutathione boosts the immune system, neutralizes free radicals, detoxifies the body and lightens the skin. This antioxidant causes skin lightening effects by disabling the enzyme tyrosinase which causes skin pigmentation.

However there are currently no major scientific studies on the effects of intravenous form for skin lightening. This means long-term side effects are virtually unknown. “There’s a lot we don’t know about it. That’s the biggest problem,” said Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, a prominent Manhattan-based dermatologist.

Safer Alternatives

Many responsible cosmetics retailers sell toners, serums, and other skin care products that can safely modify the unsightly appearance of acne scars, melasma, birthmarks, and other dermatological conditions. These products do not contain mercury, hydroquinone or other substances that could put your health at risk.

Unsightly age spots or skin problems due to hormonal changes can be quickly fixed with cosmetic brighteners and serums. You can apply products, like our over the counter serum, twice a day and see results. Just make sure the area is clean and dry. Serious skin conditions can be treated with the assistance of a licensed dermatologist.

The practice of skin lightening does not have to involve dangerous chemicals. Plenty of safer alternatives exist and work well!

It can be empowering to take charge of defining your own identity both to yourself and the rest of the world. But these positive activities can be lost if you forget how beautiful you really are no matter what. Skin lightening products can be safe. Insecurity should never lead to putting your safety or your health at risk. Loving oneself can be a lifelong struggle, but it’s worth the effort to commit to self-care.