Beauty Skincare

The Dark Side of Skin Lighteners

By Diane Small

Summer is just around the corner, and whilst some of us will be working on our tans, others will be working to undo the damage done by the sun, or taking it to even more extremes–they may be aiming to make their skin whiter in general.

It’s unfortunate that some dark-skinned people feel the need to go lighter, but we do fully understand why lighter-skinned people may want to rid themselves of the brown spots that ruin a smooth complexion. There are plenty of products that claim to do this, and most of them are creams marketed as skin lighteners. Lightening creams can erase hormonally based hyperpigmentation, sun damage, as well as acne scars–but there is a dark side: many contain unsafe ingredients.

Shedding Light on Hydroquinone

The most common of these is hydroquinone. In the U.S.A, hydroquinone is classified as an over-the-counter (OTC) drug that may be used in concentrations of up to 2%. Most prescription-strength hydroquinone formulations contain 3 – 4%, but concentrations as high as 10% may be available through compounding pharmacies.

It’s not really known how this ingredient works to lighten skin, but some researchers claim that it denatures the melanin-protein that causes brown spots. Others claim it inhibits the tyrosinase enzyme, as well as the synthesis of the protein associated with melanin. However, it is said to disrupt basic cellular processes, including DNA and RNA synthesis.1–4, and of course, anything that interrupts normal DNA and RNA processes could be cancerous.


In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the U.S. stated “hydroquinone is mutagenic and has cancer-causing potential.” In 1994, the Journal of the American College of Toxicology concluded that “hydroquinone is a potent cytotoxic agent that causes mutations and alterations to DNA, and that it should not be used in any leave-on type of product; it is safe for rinse-off products when used in concentrations less than 1%.”

Other studies have shown that the ingredient can cause dermatitis, hyperpigmentation, skin rashes and allergies and black spots.

As a result of these dangers, many cosmetic manufacturers opted to discontinue their hydroquinone lighteners, and some countries went so far as to ban hydroquinone from skin-whiteners. For example, hydroquinone is strictly regulated in many African and Asian countries, and its use is prohibited in the European Union (EU) and Japan. However, many hydroquinone-containing whiteners remain on the market to this day. As a matter of fact, most skin-whitening serums and creams currently available contain 2% hydroquinone–I should know, I’ve bought some myself, both on Amazon and at a UK pharmacy.


Image: Alex Johnson on Flickr/Wikicommons

Something Even Worse

Whilst hydroquinone is undoubtedly unsafe and yet still easy to get, there’s an even stronger lightener that you can still find despite its danger and prohibition: mercury.

This powerful lightener is sold as an anti-aging cream and is often imported from China, Africa, India or Mexico.  Brands include Diana Skin Lightening Formula, Stillman’s Skin Bleach and others. If the ingredients list on your skin lightener includes  “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio,”  throw it away or you may poison yourself with this potently toxic ingredient. Symptoms include tremors, memory problems, irritability, and changes in vision or hearing. Several cases of serious mercury poisoning are reported in the USA every year. 

Safer Alternatives 

There are several safe ingredients that inhibit the tyrosinase enzyme that causes dark spots, and some of these include extracts of giant fennel, bearberry, liquorice, kiwi fruit, nasturtium, rumex (yellow dock), Phyllanthus emblica fruit and mulberry. These all contain bioflavonoid components, which can protect skin from darkening.

Hydroxycinnamic acid, gluconic acid, zinc glycinate, kojic acid, aspergillus ferment, rumex extract and ergothioneine all chelate or bind copper, which also controls melanin formation; hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid, can also slow down the formation of brown spots, and pumpkin enzyme, sutilains (a protease enzyme), and lactobacillus ferment (found in yogurt) can encourage cell regeneration. White tea, liquorice and green tea all are antioxidants that act to help address the connection between inflammation and pigment formation. 


New studies indicate that melanin formation can also be controlled by stopping the ‘green light’ given to melanin formation by using a strong sunscreen, natural peptides and/or anti-inflammatory agent. Simple, old fashioned Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) also does the job, and scavenges for free radicals, too.

While there are some commercial beauty brands, such as Clinique and Estee Lauder, which have harnessed this new technology with their Dark Spot Corrector creams, these are often loaded with questionable chemicals too.

The best bet to rid yourself of pesky brown spots and keep your skin tone even is to use an organic brand, like ASDM or Tata Harper, both of which makes fantastic Concentrated Brightening Serums, which contain many of the active ingredients noted above.

The Safest Bet? DIY!

You can also try laser therapy and microdermabrasion, which both help to remove surface pigmentation to reveal brighter skin underneath. But if the cost of these dermatological treatments is too hefty, you can always try a tried and true method: lemon juice. Here’s how:

  • Squeeze the juice from half a lemon and dilute it to half strength with water. Dip a cotton ball in the liquid and apply the lemon juice to your face, or wherever you wish to lighten the skin.
  • Leave the lemon juice to sit on the skin for 15 to 20 minutes. Do not go outside during this time, as the juice makes your skin hyper-sensitive to sunlight.
  • Thoroughly rinse your skin when you’re done, then apply a good moisturizer as lemon juice can be very drying. Repeat this treatment 2 to 3 times a week (no more) for best results.

Apparently, with dedication, this really works on brown spots, reducing their appearance notably.

In short, there are plenty of safe ways to diminish brown spots, but plenty of dangerous ones, too. Be aware of what works, and what can damage your skin permanently, and no matter which method you choose,  always make sure you cover up with a perfect, organic sunscreen!

1. L Baumann, “Depigmenting Agents.” In Cosmetic Dermatology. McGraw Hill Co., New York (2002) p 99

2. AM Hutt and GF Kalf, Environmental Health Perspectives. 104(6) 1265–1269 (1996)

3. DCI 54 (Feb 1997)

4. R Goldemberg, “The Compounders Corner.” DCI 10 (Jan 1996)

5. J Am College Toxicology 13(3) 167–230

6. Howard, D, Found online at the May 2009 issue of GCI Magazine

Main image: Wikicommons

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