Skin lightening creams, also known as skin brightening creams, are designed to lighten skin color. They work by decreasing the amount of melanin, which is a pigment produced by skin cells and determines how light or dark our skin appears. These products can be used as spot treatment or for a lighter complexion overall. However, many skin lightening creams have been found to have dangerous side effects and are not approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
What Are Skin Lightening Creams?
Skin lightening creams cover a broad range of products designed to bleach and lighten the skin. They do this by targeting the cells that produce melanin. The creams can be used all over the face for a lighter complexion or to treat areas of the skin, such as age spots or acne scars. While several varieties are available online and over the counter (OTC), it’s best to talk with your doctor before using skin lightening creams. Prescription products are regularly tested for safety and efficacy, unlike OTC products, which could contain dangerous ingredients.
Why Do People Lighten Their Skin?
Skin lightening has a deep history, which began in the Victorian era (though Asians were experimenting even earlier) when powder and paint were used as what you could consider an early day foundation. European women didn’t know the dangers of lead paint — including Queen Elizabeth I, who developed arsenic poisoning. During this time, white women wished to look even more white as it symbolized purity.
Skin bleaching is also linked to African Americans during the slave trade, as those with lighter skin were seen as more intelligent, astute, and experienced. In contrast, those with dark skin were more subjected to arduous manual labor. This is a very controversial topic as it symbolizes the beginnings of white supremacy. However, skin lightening is common among non-white populations worldwide as it’s linked to deep historical, economic, sociocultural, and psychosocial roots. While there’s been a lot of research on African people concerning skin lightening, it’s also a widespread practice in Jamaica and other Afro-Caribbean countries. Initially, it was done in response to the working class’s economic and complexion-related oppression, but today it’s more of a fashion statement.
Throughout Asia, the concept of skin whitening is not new. In fact, it’s been around since ancient times when the Chinese believed that pearl powder could lighten one’s complexion. One reason why the Asian culture chooses to lighten their skin is the desire to look younger — a study revealed advertisements in four Asian countries portrayed “good” skin as smooth and white and “bad” skin as dark with wrinkles. Other driving forces include the desire to show a sign of high social class or to emulate a famous actor or singer. The preference to have white skin has fueled the skin lightening industry, with lightning products accounting for 60% of sales in the Asian skincare market.
People worldwide from different population groups and other geographic areas lighten their skin. Still, the exact numbers are unknown since some individuals are hesitant about admitting the practice because of the stigma surrounding the concept of altering one’s skin color. But cultural or social influence isn’t the only reason why people are lightening their skin. Hyperpigmentation also plays a huge role, which leads us to our next point.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is a common and typically harmless skin condition identified by patches of the skin that become darker than the normal skin. As the name suggests, hyperpigmentation is precipitated by an overproduction of melanin. The main factors for increasing melanin include sun exposure, age, fluctuating hormones, inflammation, and skin injuries. There are three main types of hyperpigmentation:
Sun (or Age) Spots: Sunspots — small, darkened patches of skin — occur from an overabundance of sun exposure that was likely unprotected. With that said, these spots tend to pop up on exposed areas such as the face, neck, décolleté, hands, and arms.
Melasma: Though harmless, melasma (otherwise known as chloasma) can make people (especially women) feel self-conscious. Melasma is a skin condition where large patches — typically light and dark brown and/or blue-gray in color — of hyperpigmentation develop on the face. They can pop up as larger flat patches or smaller freckle-like spots. Melasma is typically referred to as the “mask of pregnancy” because it affects pregnant women — 15%-50% of pregnant women get it. The condition typically worsens in the summer (again, the sun) and improves in the winter. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is a common skin disorder. Between 1.5% and 33% of the population may get melasma, typically starting between 20 and 40 years of age.
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: This type of hyperpigmentation occurs when there is trauma or injury to the skin, which causes a flat discolored patch. Those with chronic acne or who regularly receive cosmetic procedures like dermabrasion are susceptible to this condition.
How Do Skin Lightening Creams Work?
Skin lighteners contain an active ingredient (or a combination of) that curtail the amount of melanin in the skin where it is applied topically.
Dangers of Skin Lightening Creams
Skin whitening and lightening creams continue to grow in popularity despite being associated with profound adverse effects on the skin and overall well-being. Several countries have banned the use of skin bleaching products for this very reason. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a notice stating that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognized as safe and effective based on copious evidence.
Unfortunately, even though the USA and European union have stricter and stronger regulations, consumers still have easy access to various dangerous legal and illegal skin-bleaching products. We’re talking about prescription-strength hydroquinone and topical corticosteroids that can be purchased via the internet, immigration, and world travel. Here’s a rundown of the ingredients to avoid (and why) when looking for a skin whitening cream.
- Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, pigmented lesions, exogenous ochronosis (a cutaneous disorder characterized by blue-black pigmentation), contact dermatitis.
- Severe Reactions: Fetal growth retardation, peripheral neuropathy (a condition that occurs when nerves that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord from and to the rest of the body become damaged or diseased.)
- Adverse Effects: Hyperpigmentation, gastrointestinal stress, dermatitis.
- Severe Reactions: Nephrotoxicity, mercurial baboon syndrome, pneumonitis, mad hatter’s disease.
- Adverse Effects: Photosensitivity, retinoid dermatitis, peeling, erythema.
- Severe Reactions: Fetal complications, hepatic toxicity, thyroid dysfunction.
Steroids (Clobetasol, Betamethasone)
- Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, folliculitis, acne, telangiectasias, perioral dermatitis, atrophy, hypertrichosis.
- Severe Reactions: Cushing syndrome, adrenal insufficiency, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, hypertension, steroid addiction syndrome.
- Adverse Effects: Irritation, erythema, contact dermatitis, the ability to hydrolyze into hydroquinone in alkaline conditions.
- Severe Reactions: N/A
- Adverse Effects: Irritation, contact dermatitis.
- Severe Reactions: Vision loss, burns, hepatic toxicity, neurotoxicity-seizures.
- Adverse Effects: Contact dermatitis, abdominal pain and bloating, alopecia.
- Severe Reactions: Vascular thrombosis, pulmonary embolism.
- Adverse Effects: Cramping, bloating, contact dermatitis.
- Severe Reactions: Thyroid dysfunction; Stevens-Johnson syndrome; hepatic, neurologic, and renal toxicity.
- Adverse Effects: Xerosis, burning, irritation, sulfur odor.
- Severe Reactions: N/A
The Top 10 Skin-Safe Lightening Ingredients
When looking for a natural skin lightening cream, keep an eye out for the following ingredients.
While vitamin C is a safe skin lightening (and brightening) ingredient, it’s also an anti aging powerhouse that provides potent antioxidant protection, builds collagen, and helps soften fine lines and wrinkles.
While this ingredient can cause contact dermatitis in high doses (1-2%), it’s still considered a natural skin lightener (a by-product of malted rice) that ceases the production of an enzyme necessary for melanin production.
AKA, pro-vitamin B3, niacinamide fights acne, balances oil, calms inflammation, boosts ceramides, fights free radicals, and (of course) lightens.
This ingredient has the same pH level as your skin (5.5), so along with lightning, it’s excellent for calming chronic redness (especially for chronic conditions like rosacea) and even out the skin tone.
Derived from the bearberry plant, when used in a 1-2% concentration, alpha arbutin can be one of the most effective natural skin lighteners. It works similarly to kojic acid by inhibiting tyrosinase enzymes.
While you may know glycolic acid as an effective exfoliant for the skin, you may not know that it’s also an efficient lightener. It works to impede melanin production because of the increased cell turnover rate. It can even boost the results of other natural skin lighteners, like kojic acid, for example.
This power-packed extract contains a bevy of actives, some of which hinder tyrosinase activity, while others have their own signature lightning abilities.
There’s still not enough research on how well this robust antioxidant works on its own, so it’s best when used in a product with a blend of natural skin lighteners — like kojic acid, for example.
This natural skin lightener is a bit more new to the scene. Still, some researchers find that it may be even more effective than dangerous hydroquinone — bonus points for protecting against free radical damage.
LA works similarly to glycolic acid in that it speeds up cell turnover rate, but it may also curtail melanin production directly. You may not be aware, but linoleic acid is in natural plant oils such as evening primrose, rosehip, and grapeseed oils.
Skin Lightening for Black and Brown Skin — Controversy?
Even if it’s done by choice, there’s no doubt that there’s controversy surrounding the skin bleaching of black and brown skin. However, in some countries, it’s a topic that’s more accepted and widely advertised (not in America due to enforcement by the FDA.) In the United States, there’s more political correctness because white supremacy comes to mind — especially when #blacklivesmatter came into existence in July of 2013.
Many brands such as L’Oréal, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson have pulled their skin-lightening products due to colorism: a type of prejudice that places a higher value on lighter-skinned individuals. Letters were even sent to Amazon in droves to pull lightning products from their virtual shelves. There have been several strong campaigns worldwide (#unfairandlovely, #reclaimthebindi; the nonprofit campaign Dark is Beautiful in India, and countless others) to help fight colorism while giving men and women the confidence to embrace their skin color and heritage.
11 The Best Skin Lightening Products
Best Skin Lightener Overall Admire My Skin Brightener
The gentle combination of acids in this dark spot corrector helps fade dark spots, melasma, and hyperpigmentation on the skin without causing any irritation. Depending on the sensitivity of your skin, you can safely use this corrector on the face either once or twice a day and see visible results within just a few weeks.
This corrector does not contain any harmful ingredients like parabens and fragrance, making it completely safe to use. It also comes with easy-to-understand application instructions so you can use it effectively and without experiencing any ill effects. Regular use might cause some peeling on the skin, although this is normal and expected. Also, it’s imperative that you use sunscreen every time you step outdoors, as your skin will be very sensitive after regular application of this spot corrector.
Best Value Skin Lightener Best Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer Broad Spectrum Spf 15
Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 15
I used this daily moisturizer for a long time, so I can attest that it definitely helps improve your skin tone and texture, and reduces the appearance of your sun or age spots, acne scars and more. It uses a soy complex and natural light diffusers to brighten your complexion and bring out your skin's natural radiance. The only reason I stopped using it is because it is best for those with normal skin types. It didn't moisturize my dry patches enough, and then it would cause my oily spots to break out more. It improves your radiance factor though within a week. It’s oil free, hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic. The only downside is the fact that it works best with normal skin, and it is a thicker cream.
Best Drugstore Skin Lightening Cream Olay Pro-x Skin Tone Spot Fading Treatment
Designed by a team of dermatologists and genomics experts, Pro-X Tone Correcting Protocol treats 5 root causes of uneven skin tone to visibly restore even color for smoother, brighter skin. The microbeads exfoliate and hydrate areas, and a 60-day guarantee is provided, so if you don't see a big difference you can get your money back. This is particularly effective on acne scars and for those who constantly suffer from acne, because it isn't too harsh on your skin. All you need is a tiny drop once a day (after your shower or before bedtime), and within two weeks users noticed a significant difference in the color of scars, discolorations, and hyperpigmentation. Also, the smell isn't overpowering and it won't cause you to break out. Plus, can also have the peace of mind knowing it's from Olay, a highly trusted skin care brand.
Best Go-to Skin Lightener Best Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Night Moisturizer
The trusted skin care brand Neutrogena offers a remedy for all your skin problems: discoloration, acne scars, sun spots, and uneven tone. The intense, fast-acting moisturizer is proven to improve the appearance and texture of your skin in just one week. And since the product is only around $20, that's quote a solution. In fact, I used this product one about a week and a half, and I noticed a big difference in my small dark acne scars.The accelerated retinol SA is combined with a booster ingredient that increases skin's surface activity to help smooth wrinkles and diminish the look of age spots. On top of that, Vitamin C helps diffuse uneven skin tone. Use two pumps every night. The only downfall is that the product runs out quickly.
Best Pigment Lighteners Skinceuticals Pigment Regulator Daily High Potency Skin Lightener
The trusted skin care brand SkinCeuticals makes one of my favorites products for reducing the appearance of my acne scars and hyperpigmentation from the sun: the SkinCeuticals Pigment Regulator. This product uses natural botanicals that aren't as harsh as their chemical bleaching counterparts, a.k.a hydroquinone, to effectively minimize sun spots, age spots, freckles, scars and more. Kojic acid and emblica are the active ingredients that actually attack the melanin pigment clusters on the surface of the skin.
Best skin lighteners Clinique Even Better Skin Lightener
Clinique's Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector is a product I've used for years for my acne scars and hyperpigmentation as well. This product is really effective on lingering acne scars; daily application will likely yield noticeable results in two to four weeks, and a verified 58 percent improvement in 12 weeks. The specialized ingredients break apart surface darkening and exfoliate it away for a more even complexion. And because it’s Clinique, you know it’s safe and gentle, which is important since you're trying to clear your skin up, not break out some more. However, those with oily skin may see increased breakouts if used on a daily basis.
Best skin lightener Makari Caviar Face Cream Skin Lightener
This hydrating formula/skin lightening cream is ideal for dry, thirsty skin. First, an ultra-rich brightening moisturizer nourishes skin while diminishing the appearance of visible spots, dullness, and discolorations. The formula is called "caviar" because that's what it is: it is created with caviar extracts to improve skin's texture, encourage cell growth, and balance the skin's pH. It also has a great fresh scent. The only downside is the price, $50, and that it's recommended you use the product twice a day, which can result in it running out quickly.
Best Avon Banishing Cream Skin Discoloration Improver
Avon has been known as a trusted beauty and skin brand for years, and this skin lightening cream is definitely a great pick for those on a budget--it's under $10. It's light, non-greasy and moisturizing, and uses Avon's own brightening formula as well as botanicals and vitamin E. You will start to notice a significant difference in the depth of your scars or dark spots on your face within a month. It isn't as strong as some of the other brands that cost much more, but with regular use you will definitely see a difference.
Best Almay Smart Shade CC Cream Complexion Corrector
There are several benefits to gain from Almay's complexion corrector. On one side, it's a silky cream that enhances your complexion's radiance, evens skin tone, prevents future damage with an SPF 3, and corrects discolorations. On the other hand, it is also a smart shade lightweight foundation. This means that it provides smooth airy coverage, covering your imperfections flawlessly until the cream's formula corrects them for you. It comes in three shades: light, light/medium and medium, and after you apply the CC cream it formulates to match your skin tone. It also hydrates and promotes luminosity for a smooth soft complexion.
Best Shiseido Bio-Performance Advanced Super Revitalizing Cream
This may be one of the most expensive lightening products on the market — priced around $100 — but users rave about how it hydrates and energizes skin while evening skin tone at the same time. Shiseido Bio-Performance Advanced Super Revitalizer Cream combines an advanced-technology moisturizer with a powerful extraordinary brightening agent for a silky smooth feeling. It greatly minimizes old acne scars, hyperpigmentation and sun spots to make skin appear even and supple, while simultaneously fighting aging and future sun damage. For those with major spots to be lightened on the face, this product is well worth the investment.
Best Obagi Nu-derm Clear
Obagi is a trusted skin care brand, so it's no surprise that users have rave reviews about the Nu-Derm Clear product line. It is rated to make skin look younger, clearer and smoother, and many users say they don't even use foundation or make-up coverage at all anymore because their complexions evened out so much. It works best on dark patches from sun damage, melasma spots and acne scars, as well as rough skin, redness, sallowness (yellowing), and fine lines, and using an anti-aging therapy formula that penetrates below the skin's surface to transform the skin cell functions at the cellular level and correct the damage that way. After 12 weeks, users saw a 50 percent improvement in their skin. The main problem is that there are several Nu-Derm Clear products formulated for all types of skin, so it's best to get consultation to see which one works best for you.