Are There Any Side Effects When Whitening Skin?

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The first step to fixing stubborn hyperpigmentation is to find a product that you can safely and effectively use. 

If you’re thinking about trying a skin lightening cream, it’s essential to educate yourself on the positive and negative side-effects first.

Skin lightening products and drugs have a long history of varying levels of success reducing pigment production. Just like any other item on the market, doctors learn more about medicines, the longer they’re available.

Along with the many benefits of using a skin lightening product (inhibiting melanocytes, for instance), there are also side effects from using them. 

More on that in a sec…

Does that mean women and men around the world should avoid them? Learning about the side effects and getting medical advice from your doctor can help you decide.

Table of Contents

5 Side Effects of Skin Bleaching

As shoppers, we take on partial responsibility for finding products that are safe and effective for us. Up until 2006, the most reliable and most effective way to treat hyperpigmentation was skin bleaching with products that contain mercury.

After many people started using these products and further research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of mercury in this form of medication. 

Other ingredients like hydroquinone and corticosteroids produce complications in the skin and body but are still available. However, over-the-counter bleaching creams used to lighten skin are no longer considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

1. Mercury poisoning

stopWhile still legal for use in other countries, the FDA banned any concentration of mercury in the United States. You can still find it in certain products (found only in select stores) because international sellers use the black market to transport their wares into the country.

Those who sell these products target people of Indian, African, and Hispanic descent. But they are not safe for anyone of any ethnicity. The Food and Drug Administration advises that if you see any variation of mercury in a product, you should dispose of it according to local waste policies for safety purposes (1).

Mercury is dangerous because of how easily it affects people. The vapors released from a product containing mercury not only put you at risk, but they also pose a risk for any children you interact with. Internal symptoms of mercury poisoning include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Neurological symptoms (tremors, memory loss, irritability)
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver or nerve damage

External symptoms of mercury poisoning include:

  • Skin turning dark or too light
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Visible blood vessels in the skin
  • Scarring
  • Abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)the Food and Drug Administration

2. Dermatitis

Dermatitis, often referred to as “contact dermatitis” (2) is severe inflammation of the skin. Dermatitis is a type of skin irritation that is itchy, swollen, and uncomfortable. The use of skin lightening cream and contact dermatitis are correlated, but it’s not associated with any specific ingredient.

Dermatitis isn’t contagious and doesn’t irritate internal organs. It does, however, manifest itself physically with skin redness, blisters, skin ulcers, hives, dry, scaly skin, burning and tenderness, and more.

3. Exogenous ochronosis

skin conditionExogenous ochronosis is directly linked to bleaching creams containing chemicals like hydroquinone in them (like epiquin micro). Unlike many other side effects, it typically appears on the skin after prolonged use of it.

It is often visible across large surface areas. So, if you’re using creams that contain hydroquinone for body hyperpigmentation, you’re at a greater risk of developing this condition.

It manifests itself physically with black and blue skin blemishes (3). It’s not contagious, so the black and blue pigmentation won’t spread.

However, anywhere you have applied the bleaching product is at risk. The bottom line is that using hydroquinone can make some pigmentation issues worse over time.

4. Steroid acne

girl checking scars in the mirrorSteroid acne is caused by bleaching creams with corticosteroids as an active ingredient (4). These zits are essentially a physical display of a steroid overdose on the skin. 

Clearing up the reaction requires 4-8 weeks of antibiotics from a health care provider. 

Your skin may take up to 6 months to restore itself after taking medicines. Cases of this rash are more severe in African American consumers.

Steroid acne shows up primarily on the chest. The back and arms are susceptible to outbreaks, too. 

The pimples vary in size and amount from small whiteheads, blackheads, or red bumps to large, painful bumps on the skin. If you are taking steroids and experiencing issues like these, seek guidance immediately.

5. Nephrotic syndrome

unwell woman in bedStudies have shown that exposure to mercury-based skin lightening products causes Nephrotic syndrome in its users (5). This side effect targets the kidneys directly. It causes damage to blood vessels in the kidneys, impairing them from functioning correctly. 

Lowered kidney function means that your body won’t expel waste the way it’s supposed to.

Help from a healthcare provider is necessary to treat this syndrome. There are several prescription treatment options, including blood pressure medications, diuretics, statins, blood thinners, or immune system suppressants.

Nephrotic syndrome presents itself with swelling (edema) around the eyes, feet, and ankles. You can also expect foamy urine, loss of appetite, and fatigue.

What to do if you have problems?

serum dropsIf you’re using skin-lightening creams, be on the lookout for any of the symptoms listed above. Health care providers can give you the best help on which beauty products are harmful to you.

Most importantly, if your skin lightening creams cause any skin conditions, you should stop using them immediately and get medical help as soon as possible. Don’t try any home remedies as others could cause further skin damage. Get in touch immediately with the hospital or poison control center (especially if you suspect mercury poisoning).

When you see your dermatologist, take all of the product information from the product(s) you used for the best diagnosis and medical advice.

Are skin lightening creams safe?

Using skin lightening creams is safe if you use products with ingredients that are FDA-approved (6), and you follow all of the product’s instructions. Treatments that are non-regulated always expose you to a certain amount of risk, dangers and health problems.

How to use a skin lightening product safely:

  • Look for products with all of the FDA-required product information on the label.
  • Watch out for products that cause damage to individual skin tones.
  • Double-check that the product is made in the United States.
  • Find out what the side effects are for the brightening cream you plan on using.
  • If there is a brand name, check out the company’s website for more information.
  • Check for drug interactions
  • Pay attention if you need to store the product at room temperature or in a cool place
  • Consult with a doctor if you’re unsure about anything.
  • Follow the directions exactly as they appear on the product label. (they must be taken according to the recommended dosage to avoid any adverse reactions.)
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after applying products.
  • Ask your pharmacist any questions you have about the active or inactive elements inside the product (especially if you have been diagnosed with a sulfite allergy).
  • Read all of the precautionary information that is included with the medicine.

Benefits of Skin Lightening Creams

sitting womanSkin lightening creams are an effective method to lighten dark skin that simply “drinking more water” won’t achieve. 

It’s not necessarily about changing your skin color, but about managing the excess melanin your skin produces. 

Moreover, improving your skin can have positive effects on your self-esteem and confidence.

Ways that you can lighten your skin include using niacinamide, vitamin c, chemical peels, and many others. 

Most of these safe treatments for smoothing your skin tone are much more gentle than skin bleaching medicine from countries that lack regulations. 

Some of them don’t require a doctor if you use them according to the instructions on the label.

1. Minimizes dark spots

One of the many benefits of skin bleaching is that it reduces dark spots (7). You can get dark marks from a variety of things. 

Excessive sun exposure (without wearing sunblocker) is a common cause of sunspots. Sun damage affects your skin far longer than the time you’re actually in the sun.

Even tanning beds cause excess production of melanin, and this can show up in the form of liver and age spots. 

Before you start using skin bleaching creams, get all of your spots checked out by a dermatologist for signs of skin cancer. Sun damage related complexion issues are easy to miss.

Some dark marks are genetic conditions (like melasma, freckles, and post-inflammatory marks from eczema and psoriasis). 

As long as you’re following doctor recommendations and taking the proper precautions, skin bleaching cream is a great option.

2. Reduces the appearance of acne scars

enjoying her facialA common use of skin bleaching products is to treat acne scars (8). Breakouts or allergic reactions can leave you with dark marks all around the eyes and lips. 

Products with active ingredients like kojic acid (to control melanin production on your face) are a good substitute for hydroquinone.

It’s also crucial to wear sunscreen every day when you’re skin bleaching. 

Any dermatologist will attest to the fact that sunlight is one of the biggest problems for battling these dark marks. 

Applying sunscreen throughout the day helps improve the skin’s appearance, prevents sun burning, and promotes general skin wellness. (Some brands include this warning in their directions for use.)

3. Evens out skin tone

even skinSkin bleaching helps solve the problem that dark marks present: inhibiting melanocytes from producing extra melanin (9). 

Once you add hydroquinone or another dermatologist-prescribed skin medicine, the results are smooth, clear skin.

Fixing the stubborn hyperpigmentation, especially around the nose and mouth areas, takes consistent effort. 

You’ll see changes over time, not overnight. Whether you’re taking hydroquinone or something else, a regular routine is the path to clear skin.

Safe Skin Lightening Creams: Final Thoughts

So, is bleaching your skin bad? Skin medications come with risks. It’s up to you to discuss these risks with your doctor.

Even though hydroquinone isn’t in any over-the-counter medicines, you can still get a prescription from a dermatologist or doctor.

There’s always a possibility that areas of your skin may react to the medication you take.

Even at-home remedies like hydrogen peroxide can have adverse effects on areas of your skin. If you notice an area of your skin reacting poorly, make small changes to figure out which product is responsible.

There are no concrete health benefits that come from skin bleaching. It’s about what’s going to make you the best version of yourself possible. Skin bleaching is an option you can consider if even skin is what you want.

Did we pique your interest? Visit our homepage to learn more about the top lightening creams available today.


Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products, retrieved from

Dermatitis, retrieved from

Prachi A Bhattar et al., Exogenous Oc., retrieved from

Steroid Acne, retrieved from

Nephrotic syndrome, retrieved from

Cosmetic Ingredients, retrieved from

Age spots (liver spots), retrieved from

Acne scars: What’s the best treatment?, retrieved from

Jennifer Y. Lin & David E. Fisher, Melanocyte biology and skin pigmentation, retrieved from

About the Author

Picture of Tina Briggs
Tina Briggs
Tina Briggs, with her 15-year tenure in the skin lightening industry, founded and now edits Ashenly. Her industry expertise and insightful contributions actively shape the thoughtful content readers find on Learn more about her and the team here.

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