Skin-lightening risks

Non-prescription creams that claim to bleach or lighten your skin can be harmful.

'Patients are often very distressed by the results of skin-lightening creams' Indy Rihal, British Skin Foundation

A survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found that 16% of dermatologists believe lightening creams are ‘completely unsafe’ and 80% feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist.

“Unfortunately, many skin-lightening creams contain illegal compounds that can damage your health,” says Indy Rihal of the British Skin Foundation. “The most common compounds are high-dose steroids.”

Some creams also contain hydroquinone, a bleaching agent that is banned from use in cosmetics (but can be prescribed by doctors for medical reasons).

The damaging effects of these products are taken seriously by the law. In 2007, a couple in London who had sold non-prescription skin-lightening creams were fined £70,000.

In March 2009, a man who sold unlicensed medicines and banned cosmetics, including skin-lightening creams containing corticosteroids and hydroquinone, was ordered to pay £80,000 in fines, costs and repayment of illegal earnings. 

Skin lightening risks

Although steroids can be useful in treating some skin diseases, such as psoriasis and eczema, this must take place under the supervision of a skin specialist.

“Unmonitored use of high-dose steroids can lead to many problems,” says Rihal. “Patients are often very distressed by the results of skin-lightening creams.”

Skin lightening creams can cause:

  • permanent skin bleaching 
  • thinning of skin
  • uneven colour loss, leading to a blotchy appearance
  • redness and
  • intense irritation

If you've used a skin lightening cream and are worried about the effect it has had, see a GP. They may be able to refer you to a dermatologist.

“Medically approved preparations prescribed by a GP or a dermatologist are not dangerous, within reason,” says Rihal.

A cream that you buy over the counter is not necessarily medically approved and could permanently damage your skin.

Depigmentation, a medical treatment that lightens or fades skin, is sometimes used in the treatment of vitiligo (a condition that causes pale patches on the skin). This treatment uses prescription medication and needs medical supervision. It's not suitable for everybody. Find out more about vitiligo.

Page last reviewed: 07/03/2012

Next review due: 07/03/2014

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