A survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found 16% of dermatologists believe lightening creams are completely unsafe, and 80% feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist.
There are prescription-only lightening creams, which must be used under the supervision of a doctor. A lightening cream obtained without prescription – for example, bought in a shop – may contain banned substances and be on sale illegally. People who use these illegally sold creams might not realise the harm they can cause.
Hermione Lawsone of the British Skin Foundation says: "Unfortunately, many skin-lightening creams contain illegal compounds that can damage your health. The most common compounds are high-dose steroids."
Some creams also contain hydroquinone, a bleaching agent 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 November 2012, a man pleaded guilty to possessing skin-lightening creams for supply, as well as prescription-only medications. The skin-lightening creams contained hydroquinone. The man was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £1,375.
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 Lawson. "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
- 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.
Medical skin lightening
"Medically approved preparations prescribed by a GP or a dermatologist are not dangerous, within reason," says Lawson.
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.