Staying Safe with Skin Lightening

Have you seen those celebrities that have obviously lightened their skin? It's been in the news so much lately, and the decision to lighten is very personal – it’s between you and your family.

Posted on | Arthur Perry, MD, FACS | Comments ()

Have you seen those celebrities that have obviously lightened their skin? It's been in the news so much lately, and the decision to lighten is very personal – it’s between you and your family.

Social issues aside, physicians get involved in skin lightening because many of the creams used are simply dangerous.  Here’s why:

Brown pigment in our skin is produced by special cells that make melanin.  Most of the skin lighteners block the formation of this pigment. So, they really don’t “bleach” the skin, they just stop the pigment from being produced and it eventually wears off.

The safe pigment reducers are vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin B3 (niacin). Other herbs like emblica and licorice, and fruit acids like glycolic acid, also work.

Beware, however, because the most common skin lightener, hydroquinone, is not uniformly safe. It’s been banned in Europe and the FDA has proposed to ban it in the US. Hydroquinone may cause cancer and it causes rashes and can even darken the skin.  And steer clear of any skin lightener that contains steroids. Although illegal without a prescription, some skin lighteners contain steroids so potent that they can suppress your immune system.

The worst of all the skin lighteners? They’re the ones that contain mercury. This is a dangerous metal that can destroy your kidneys and your nervous system.  But you can easily find these rogue products, even in the US.  Why would any company knowingly use dangerous ingredients like mercury? Mercury salts are much cheaper than the good vitamins and herbs that work just as well.

So now that you know all about skin lightening, how do those celebrities dramatically change the color of their skin?  I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that they either undergo laser or chemical peels, or use a drug called Benaquin® cream.  This is a drug that kills the pigment producing cells and is intended as a last ditch effort to even out the splotchiness that occurs in that terribly disfiguring disease called vitiligo.

So, to lighten or not is your business.  But if you do it, do it safely. And once you remove the natural protection that melanin provides, don’t forget to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen – every day of the year.

Blog written by Arthur Perry, MD, FACS
Dr. Perry has over 2 decades of experience as a clinical surgeon and has been named to the “Best Doctors in the NY Area” book...