Skin Whitening and Lightening: Is It Safe?

Updated on March 17, 2016

Asians place a high premium on “paleness.” After all, they spend an estimated $18 billion a year to appear pale. If the term seems awkward, it is justly so. In the western world, paleness is often synonymous with ill-health.

In Asia, however, “paleness,” or “fair complexion” is highly valued. Just ask me. I grew up in a culture where fair complexion is perceived to be more desirable. It is synonymous with beauty and grace. But poor me, I was scrawny as a child and unfortunately, tan or what they call, “dark-skinned.”

It didn’t take much intuition (and children have an innate endowment of this quality) to know that I was not considered “pretty.” Many times, compliments were passed onto my fairer friends that left me standing there, looking like a dark ugly duckling.

They meant no harm, but the agony was enough to send me wishing, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, make me fair and all.”

Fair and all I didn’t become, no matter how hard I wished. If only I had wished for a fairy godmother with vials of skin lightening potion instead.

Historical Roots

But why the emphasis on being white of complexion? The simple answer is in a deeply-held belief, right or wrong, that has a long history dating back to the Han Dynasty.

“The feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly white. Moon-like roundish faces, long black hair. You can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might continue with an ideal that light skin equals beauty,“ says Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum.

Chinese also believe that “One white can cover up three uglinesses.” Loosely translated, it means that you can cover up all your defective parts if you are white.

Time may have moved on, but this belief is still very evident by the number of skin lightening products sold in Asia. In fact, 50 percent of Taiwanese women (and a growing number of men as well) are paying big bucks to alter their golden exteriors.

Whenever I go home to visit in Singapore, I’m confronted with the belief that fairer is better. Well-meaning relatives and friends ask with great concern: “Why do you remain tan, even though you live in a white country now?”

But personal trivia aside, is skin lightening safe? Is it worth the price of your skin? Let’s look at some skin lightening basics.

What Is Skin Lightening?

Our skin epidermis contains melanocytes, which produces melanin, a pigment, responsible for the color of the skin, hair and eyes.

Although human beings generally possess similar concentration of melanocytes, some individuals or ethnic groups have genes that stimulate higher production of melanin, resulting in a darker shade.

Skin Lightening Aids

The cosmetic industry is happy to capitalize on this need to “lighten” skin color by producing a variety of skin lightening products such as lotion, cream, pills, and even washes and soaps.

Cosmetic procedures are also available in the form of chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and other methods of exfoliation to remove superficial pigmented skin cells. In Asia, whitening injections are also used to whiten skin.

The Science Behind the Skin

Skin lightening ingredients are used based on their abilities to break down the actions of the enzyme, tyrosinase, which works to catalyze the chemical production of melanin in the body.

To achieve a fairer complexion, the logic is to shut down tyrosinase activity.

Is it Safe?

There are a few ways to ensure your skin lightening products are safe. First, consult a dermatologist before using them.

In addition, check the ingredients used in the products and make sure that none of them are banned by the FDA. So far, only hydoquinone is approved by the FDA and even then, there are some concerns about its safety.

Skin lightening commercials are common in Asia
Skin lightening commercials are common in Asia | Source

Common Ingredients

The American Academy of Dermatology says that treatment with topical skin lightening cream containing hydroquinone, retinoids, azaelic acid, hydroxyacids or kojic acids may be effective in treating the overproduction of melanin, a condition known as melasma.

Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is an ingredient used in skin-lightening products as it can interfere with tyrosinase function, thereby reducing pigment in the skin. It is also used for treating age spots and blemishes.

There have been many controversies regarding its safety after studies in rodents showed “some evidence” that hydroquinone may contain carcinogens, which are cancer-causing agents.

Excessive use of hydroquinone can also produce a condition called ochronosis, whereby the skin becomes dark and blue.

Some studies also indicate an abnormal function of the adrenal glands and high levels of mercury in people who used cosmetics containing hydroquinone. Because of these findings, it is banned in Europe, Japan and Australia.

However, the FDA has allowed the use of hydroquinone with a doctor’s prescription and has also approved certain hydroquinone products such as Lustrate, Alustra, Glyquin, Obagi and Tri-Lama.

Retinoids

Retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A and are generally used for the treatment of acne and fine wrinkles. They are also used in bleaching creams to reduce pigmentation.

Hydroxyl Acids

Hydroxyl acids refer to a group of naturally-occurring acids, derived from sugars in a number of natural products:

  • Glycolic (sugar cane)
  • Lactic acid (milk)
  • Tartaric acid (grapes)
  • Citric acid (citrus fruits)
  • Malic acid (apples)
  • Mandela acids (bitter almonds)

These acids are good exfoliates, dissolving dead skin cells and increasing cell turnover. Apart from treating acne, they are known to fade melasma.

Azaelic Acid

Azaelic acid is a derivative of a natural occurring by-product of the metabolism of the yeast Pityrosporum ovale.

It is used commonly for treating acne and dermatologists make use of its side effects as a skin lightener. It works by targeting overactive melanocytes to reduce melanin production.

Caution

Skin lighteners have been known to cause skin irritations and in some cases, skin disfiguration. Some contain mercury derivatives such as mercury chloride which can cause disfiguration. Mercury can also cause kidney and speech problems.

Another important consideration: Lightening your skin can make your skin more vulnerable to UV radiation.

“The whiter they become, the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer,” says Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez, director of international dermatology training at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

Do I still wish for dewy fair skin? Maybe, but not enough for me to risk any side-effects that may arise when you try to alter nature. I'm happy with the skin God has given me and I'm proud of it.

Disclaimer: This hub is for general information and not meant to replace medical advice. Always consult a certified physician before using any skin lighteners.

Questions & Answers

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    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      3 years ago

      Hi Marlene, appreciate your comments. It's true that paleness is overrated. Living in a culture where that is the yardstick of beauty is not easy but I love the color I'm born with. Tan! Thanks for dropping.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      3 years ago from USA

      I hear you! In my culture, growing up light-skinned was definitely a plus. I'm fairly sure the people in my culture purchased the bulk of products containing Hydroquinone. It was quite prevalent in just about every household. I didn't know it was the same with other cultures. It's too bad, because you have a very pretty face with gorgeous features. Still, living in a culture that measures beauty on the paleness factor can't be easy.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      3 years ago

      abrodech, I agree with your observations. I feel like every color is beautiful and we don't have to doctor it up or down. I'm dark skin and perfectly happy with it. THanks for the read and comment.

    • abrodech profile image

      Anya Brodech 

      3 years ago from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607

      I watched a documentary called "Dark Girls" that addressed the issue of "colorism" which is discrimination based on the perceieved lightness or darkness of one's skin tone. It happens not only in Asian cultures, but in African and Latin/Hispanic cultures as well.

      Personally, I think that darker skinned people are very beautiful and it's hard to believe that people are still actively trying to whiten/lighten their skin!

      I know that in the past in America and Europe, among Caucasians, having pale/light skin was a mark of social status because it meant that you got to stay inside instead of working under the sun out in the fields all day.

      I hope that in the future, the world will even out and realize that not one "look" is perfect or ideal and that people will learn to recognize that beauty comes in all colors.

      Anya

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      4 years ago

      Hi mamaboys, so sorry you've dark patches from pregnancy. It may be due to hormonal changes. Try home remedies like applying lemon juice, juice of pineapple, strawberries on dark patches with Q-tips. Allow to dry and rinse off. Some people put honey after to soothe the skin. Of course, the best option is to visit the dermatologist and go from there. I hope this helps.

    • profile image

      mamaboys 

      4 years ago

      Hi, can you clarify some info for me. I have dark patches from pregnancy on my face. I am quite light...how do I lighten the dark patches without lighten my normal skintone? Does a brightening serum lighten only dark patches?

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      6 years ago

      wertvoll, from my observation (n I'm Asian), we don't have much of that blue vein problem. Maybe, our skin is thicker, I don't really know but good observation. Thanks for dropping by to comment.

    • profile image

      wertvoll 

      6 years ago

      I just bought some withening creme for myself, becaues I am having very big dark spots covering most of my face. My complexion is very fair and I hope to even it out. I personaly don't mind being fair skined, what botheres me, is having all my veins shimmer blue through my skin and my spider veins show more, does that not bother the Asians or is their skin "thicker" in that sense?

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      6 years ago

      Thanks, Carlos, for dropping by to comment. That's an interesting fact that bleaching products are rampant in Mississippi. Take care.

    • Carlos Catatonia profile image

      Carlos Catatonia 

      6 years ago from new orleans, louisiana

      When I was in Mississippi they sold skin bleaching products everywhere...I was shocked...but now thanks to you I know it all started in the Asian community...this was so informative...can't wait to see what's next from you

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      6 years ago

      chris hugh, haha, I know what you mean--from what I've observe there's not a distinct difference of colors but the face does appear more fair and radiant. I agree that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and skin tones. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Chris Hugh 

      6 years ago

      Interesting article, and you chose a lovely photo. It's an odd subject; if a woman succeeds in getting her face bright white, it won't match the rest of her body!

      I think beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and skin tones. I mean, who would change a single thing about Grace Jones?

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      6 years ago

      Thanks, Jorda, glad you like it. Will check out your site.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      7 years ago

      Thanks, Katie, for your stamp of approval.

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 

      7 years ago from I'm outta here

      What an amazing body of work you have here on skin lightening is it safe. Thank you for the very well researched report on skin lightening. :) Katie

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Thanks, bojanlgesk8.

    • bojanglesk8 profile image

      bojanglesk8 

      8 years ago

      Great Hub!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Gillian, thanks for your comments. Whether tan ages you is a matter of perception. In Asia, where skin lightening is hugely commercialized, that's the perception they tell you to sell the product or services. In the West, people pay big bucks to sport a tan. A tan is very desirable in America. But as you point out, to each his own. Just make sure it's safe.

    • profile image

      Gillian from Singapore 

      8 years ago

      Well, I am Asian and I want to have fair skin. When I was young, I love being tan and would bake in the sun the whole afternoon. Maybe that was the "tan" era but now that I am older, I want fair skin. "Tan" in an older woman ages !!! It's easier to be tan and dark, just spend few hours in the sun but to be fair, it takes years or take forever !!! So for me, I still go "thumbs-up" for the "Fair" but hopefully not via the harmful way of skin lightening.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Thanks, Jakie.

    • profile image

      Jakie 

      8 years ago

      yes i think it's safe

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      gorgeously, thanks for dropping by.

      deutzal, yes, lightening creams are also use for blemishes and age spots. As you have already observed, it is best to check with your dermatologist before using any such products. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Georgously, thanks for dropping by. Glad you liked it.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      hubby, great minds think alike or fools seldom differ? I think I'll go with the former because you're one great thinker. Thanks for checking back and I will see you around.

    • deutza1_d profile image

      deutza1_d 

      8 years ago

      Lightening creams as you said are mostly used in Asian culture. However, a lot of people use them to get rid of blemishes and brown spots. I had a BIG problem with a whitening cream that was made in a pharmacy. I was supposed to use it over night but I woke up in pain as it started to burn my skin. This is why, I never use a product that does not have all the necessary licences. Great blog! Very helpful.

    • Gorgeously profile image

      April Treme 

      8 years ago from United States

      Great information you have there.. & Thanks for sharing them. Keep it up..

    • hubby7 profile image

      hubby7 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      I figured that you would answer that way: If you want to do it, make sure it is safe. I, too, am a strong believer in the first amendment. Let a person do what s/he wants to do even if it is to his or her own detriment. Again, good hub!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Hubby, thanks for your interesting discourse. I agree--why am I hawking skin lightening products? You know the bit about free speech and that people should be given a chance to make choices? Well, my hub is not dead against skin lightening but if you are considering skin lightening, make sure it's safe. And then, why gamble with safety, like you say, be happy with your skin color. God makes diferent skin color hues and every color is beautiful. That said,I really appreciate your coming by and sharing your insightful thoughts.

    • hubby7 profile image

      hubby7 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      Hi anginwu, I enjoyed reading your hub and am in agreement with you as liking my dark skin just the way it is. I think that we should all celebrate our skin color whether it is white, brown, yellow, red, black or orange. They are like so many different beautiful colored flowers produced by Nature. They are not all one color--generic and homogenized. In a word: boring. As the saying goes: "Variety is the spice of life"! I do, however, have to criticize you on one point: If you believe what you say you believe, why are you pushing skin-lighting products? Isn't that a little like Thomas Jefferson saying that he is against slavery and yet has slaves? Isn't that like saying that you are against smoking yet hawk them on the street? I suspect that I know what your reply will be. And by the way, as far as Asian women are concerned, I adore their various hues from whitest-yellow to the orange to the brown. I stand with both you and prettydarkhorse for keeping your skin just the way it is. You are both lovely!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Maita, we're both tan and looking good, arent' we? Thanks for rating it up and so happy to see you again.

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 

      8 years ago from US

      angel, your hubs are very informational, well researched and a history on Asian people having fetish on paler skin, Thank you for this one, I rated this up, Take care angel, Maita

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Sounds interesting, metrotrade. Thanks for dropping by.

    • metrotrade profile image

      metrotrade 

      8 years ago from china

      try visiting http://cucumbermachine.com. Producing all natural cucumber sheet not slice, long enough to cover your body and face. Good whitening natural product.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Ashley, you're right, skin lightening is not limited to Asia. Michale Jackson, for one, is known for lightening his skin. Skin lightening can be safe if it is properly used. Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      Ashley 

      8 years ago

      This isn't limited to Asia. Queen Elizabeth I used lead to make her skin whiter. Anyway, I believe that everyone has the right to make themselves prettier. If this is through having fairer skin then why not. Just don't overdo that you would kill yourself over it.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Money, always enjoy your comments--they're uplifting and affirming. Thanks for the thumbs up. I love your hubs too--always well-researched and well-written.

    • Money Glitch profile image

      Money Glitch 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Great and informative hub, another example of the pains people are willing to endure for the sake of feeling beautiful. Your hubs are always so well organized and defined. Thanks so much for sharing this info. Thumbs up!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Amber, thanks for your comments. I don't know why either--that the green always seem greener yonder. You get what you get and you don't get upset--something we tell our kids should apply to adults too. :)

    • Amber Allen profile image

      Amber Allen 

      8 years ago

      Hi anginwu

      You are so right to be happy with the skin you were born with and resist the pressure. Why do we always think the grass is always greener on the other side?

      Amber:)

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Jill, you're absolutely right. Dark pigment is definitely the body's mechanism to protect itself. It's frightening to know that people would sacrifice long term health for beauty.

      I can understand the look you get when you reject skin lightening products. I get the same puzzled look every time I go home to Singapore too. I also get a lot of pressure to try them, since I'm too tan for their liking.

      Thanks for dropping by and I will talk to u soon.

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      8 years ago from Philippines

      I'm glad you wrote about this my friend.

      I used to always emphasize some of the harmful effects of too much skin lightening in my classes. I also tell them that dark skin is a protection for those living in the topics. If you remove that protection, then you are opening yourself up to various problems including skin cancer.

      Do you know that it is so hard now to buy products here that do not contain any skin lightening agent? I am perfectly happy with my skin color and I do not want to lighten it. But sales clerks would always look at me strangely every time I reject their skin whitening product and would look for something with no whitening ingredients.

      Sometimes I would comment to friends, "God is already getting confused. Those with dark skin want to be white and the white skinned ones want to be dark". Hahaha.

      Great hub my friend!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Lady E, appreciate your insightful comments. Fake tan is popular in America. Everybody wants one, which is why I feel very comfortable with my skin color here. In Asia, dark-skinned is also considered poor socio-economically--stems from the idea that farmers/laborers have darker skin tones from working in the sun.

      Thanks for dropping by and have a good weekend.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      Very useful Hub - It's just weird.

      Using fake Tan is so common in the UK now as most English people want some colour. Most Africans use skin lightners, because they want to be lighter and most Asians bleach because they want to be paler. I watched a Documentary that showed Indians who were dark skinned were considered ugly, hence the using of skin lighteners.

      Anyway, your Hub hi-lights the effects which is very important. Hydroquinone is dangerous.

      Regards

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Dude, glad you prefer tanned skins. Thanks for dropping by and rating it up. Hope to see you more often.

    • hypnodude profile image

      Andrew 

      8 years ago from Italy

      Honestly I prefer sunny tanned skins, probably because I'm white. But I know a little about Asian culture and so understand what you mean. Great hub, detailed and well written and great layout. Rated and stumbled. :)

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Thanks, Umananda!

    • Umananda profile image

      Umananda Mukherjee 

      8 years ago from Chennai

      Good information indeed!

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Pamela, thanks for your comments. It's very popular in Asian and I feel the pressure to buy them whenver I'm home for a visit.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Very interesting hub. I didn't think skin lightening worked very well but I also didn't know that it was so popular in the Asian culture. Good hub.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      itakins, good to see you again. You're right, it's all market driven and if something is marketed as desirable, you can expect a trend. Thanks for dropping by.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Shari, so good to hear from u. In Asia, all cosmetic lines have a range of whitening choices. They spew out of beauty aisles in stores and they can be enticing.But tan is beautiful and if you move to SD, you can get a natural tan any day, courtesy of the gorgeous sun. Always a pleasure to have you comment on my hub.

    • itakins profile image

      itakins 

      8 years ago from Irl

      Really interesting-coming from a country where many young girls regard themselves as undressed without their 'fake tan'...such a pity people can't accept themselves as they are.Of course it's all market driven!

      Great hub.

    • wavegirl22 profile image

      Shari 

      8 years ago from New York, NY

      anglinwu - I worked for many years for Elizabeth Arden and I was always amazed at how well the "Whitening" Line did. .it was like we could never produce enough of it . . As always a great well informed Hub!! Me personally . .ha I never get enough of a tan:)

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      Sandyspider, I know--tell me about it. Like Shakespeare would say about how caged birds want out and birds outside want in. That said, skin lightening can be safe if you have the guidance of a certified professional. Thanks for dropping by.

    • anglnwu profile imageAUTHOR

      anglnwu 

      8 years ago

      CS, you're right, why do we always yearn for that which we're not? If God created us in a certain color, won't that be the best for us? It's easy to say that now, but whenver I go home, I feel the pressure to try the skin lightening products.

      You're blessed to have a Filipina daughter. I think they're beautiful, especially their skin color. Thank you so much for insightful comments.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      I don't understand why people aren't happy with the way they are. I guess it it safe if you know what you are doing.

    • profile image

      coffeesnob 

      8 years ago

      anglnwu,

      I became aware of this when we were in the Philppines last April. I noticed that all the billboard models were fair-skined. I wondered if there was a cosmetic procedure for this. Funny because here we have tanning beds to make us darker. Silly creatures that we are trying to be something we are not. My youngest daughter is Filipino and dark-skinned. I think she is beautiful and love her skin color. And by the way if you were an ugly duckling you have turned into the beautiful swan...

      CS

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