Beware of Skin Bleaching Ingredients—Plus, 3 Sneaky Culprits

Experts break down how to safely navigate the skincare aisles.

“Inclusivity” may be a buzzword, but for anyone who has ever felt left out of conversations in the beauty space, it’s so much more. In Shades of Melanin, we celebrate Black beauty, support the brands and founders that are fighting for inclusivity in the industry, and unpack the issues that still need to be addressed.

Today, beauty isn’t solely defined by fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. While Eurocentric beauty standards are still widespread, globalization and the rise of the Internet have helped shift this—social media platforms have connected people around the world and amplified the stance of normalizing so many different types of beauty. The skincare industry, unfortunately, is still making products that lighten the skin. Hence, this ideal hasn’t gone away yet.

Growing up in Pakistan, where light skin is idolized, I grew up frustrated and conflicted. I was constantly surrounded by commercials, billboards, and newspaper ads marketing skin-lightening products. All of them would claim that dark skin would become lighter in a few weeks, and your life would change for the better because of it. Even now, skin-lightening products are still visible in stores and beauty outlets.

In countries such as Britain and the E.U., there are regulations in place that prevent lightening skincare from being sold over the counter, and the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has disapproved the selling of such products. However, in other countries such as Pakistan, Tanzania, and India, they are readily available.

“Not only is skin-bleaching skincare readily available, but it’s very profitable in the East,” says Fatima Syed, M.D., a Pakistani-based dermatologist. According to Nikkei Asia, a finance and business magazine, the skin-lightening industry in the East is currently worth $7.5 billion.

Although whitening skincare products aren’t as readily available in the West as they are in the East, there are still sneaky skincare ingredients that bleach the skin. If these products are used regularly without any checks and supervision, then over time, the side effects will appear. “Some of the side effects go well beyond the surface of the skin and can damage internal organs, like your kidneys and the liver,” says Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat.

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To keep your melanin-rich skin safe and away from bleaching ingredients, you first need to recognize which four main ingredients to be wary of.

  1. Hydroquinone (tocopheryl acetate):

Hydroquinone is an aromatic compound that is used to lighten areas of darkened skin, and it’s typically prescribed by dermatologists. When used carefully and in targeted areas, it effectively treats hyperpigmentation and melasma by decreasing the number of melanin cells, thus whitening the skin temporarily. According to a 2009 FDA research paper, its concentration in skincare products should be no more than two percent. However, hydroquinone is banned in many parts of the world such as Japan, Australia, and the European Union because of its possible carcinogenic properties, according to Refinery29. If used too often in high doses, it can lead to dryness, irritation and—in extreme cases—ochronosis, a condition that turns skin color into a bluish-black shade.

  1. Mercury:

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury is still being used in creams and soaps in high concentrations and manufactured in countries such as China, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. It works to inhibit excess melanin production, but it can also cause skin rashes, discoloration, scarring, and weaken the skin’s resistance from bacteria. At times, it may not even be listed as an ingredient so that products can be sold in countries like the U.S., where it’s banned by the FDA. Look out for ingredient names such as mercury iodide, mercury Hg, mercury oxide, or ethyl mercury.

3. Topical corticosteroids:

Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties, topical corticosteroids (TCs) help treat a wide variety of skin problems such as acne scarring and inflammation. However, it’s also used in large quantities for whitening products due to its skin-bleaching properties. It can be used safely, though. According to a 2021 American research paper, the best way to use TCs is by applying 0.5 grams (or more depending on the severity of the skin condition) once a day only. Everybody using TCs should do so under the supervision of a dermatologist, as they can cause adverse effects on the skin, such as weakening the skin barrier and causing rosacea flare-ups.

It’s important to keep in mind that while most skincare products are formulated to be used by people of all skin tones, many are unfortunately not created with Black or Brown people top of mind. According to Alicia Lartey, a Britain-based biomedical scientist, one of the main problems for skin diagnosis is that most of the symptoms recorded are based on white skin. “People from different ethnicities and places will have the same skin problem, yet the symptoms and signs will appear differently on dark skin compared to light skin,” she says, adding that in many cases, there’s less available research on skin conditions and how they appear on melanin-rich skin.

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All of this can make shopping for skincare as a person of color be a hit or miss. However, there’s no need to worry too much. Below are some expert-backed tips that can help you find skincare products that will work for you.

  1. Understand how your skin works: Lartey says you should have a firm understanding of how your skin looks and reacts to certain skin conditions and problems. Dark skin tends to have different symptoms than its paler counterparts, so do your research and consult a specialist before going to the beauty store to avoid accidentally purchasing a product that could be harmful to your skin.
  2. Experiment smartly: Lartey points out that most people use mainstream products without much thought, only to be disappointed when they don’t get their desired results. Instead of going with popular products, she recommends paying attention to the ingredients that work for you and trying different products until you find the right ones. This also includes trying out non-Western skincare products as well.
  3. Keep skin bright, not light: As seen above, there’s only misery and damage if you attempt to lighten dark skin. Some ingredients brighten the skin without changing its color, such as licorice, mulberry extract, vitamin C, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. Dr. Syed says they will provide glow and brightness to your skin without changing its color. 
  4. Be wary of the wording on ingredient lists: Some words, such as “lighten” and “brighten,” may be used on products that may not change skin color, but just to make it glowy. However, if the package says “whiten,” “instant fairness,” or gives users warnings such as “keep away from gold and silver,” then put those products down.
  5. Consult BIPOC experts: Lartey suggests seeking advice from dermatologists and estheticians of color, as they can accurately help you with your skin concerns. While most skin professionals are licensed to help all people, not all have training in melanin-rich skin and don’t have experience treating it. Therefore, BIPOC pros may be more helpful in providing skin consultations and product recommendations that cater to that skin color.
  6. Use products that are clinically tested: Robinson says that brands that have clinical testing data to support the products’ performance are the best for people of color, as they’ve gone through rigorous testing.
  7. Always patch test new products: Before slathering a new product on your face, test a pea-size amount on another area, such as your arm, in case you develop a reaction. A good tip is to buy mini versions of skincare before buying the full-sized one, since products can be pricy.