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The Dark Side of Skin Lightening

Skin lightening has long been a popular cosmetic practice dating as far back as Elizabethan England in Europe. In the earliest times, white cosmetics such as Queen Elizabeth’s white lead face paint were used, but now with modern chemistry, cosmetologists are able to produce products that actually remove pigment from the skin or suppress melanin production.

Leaving aside the racial and cultural issues of skin lightening, there are numerous health issues that should be taken into account when you are considering skin lightening.

Medical Skin Lightening Procedures

There are some procedures for skin lightening that can be performed by a medical professional. Laser treatments and cryosurgery, where an undesirably pigmented spot on the skin is frozen and allowed to fall away, are effective spot treatments to help remove pigment abnormalities, but they are expensive and not entirely reliable. Laser treatment in particular is still in its infancy, and although it is sometimes still in use, it has a margin of error in both directions; there is a significant risk of excessive lightening, or even that the treatment reverses itself and the treated area ends up darker than before.

Topical Agents

Until recently, the most commonly used skin lightening agent in topical solutions was hydroquinone, which was made illegal in the European Union in 2001. It is a powerful tool that blocks melanin production, so that when the skin renews itself it is lighter than the previous layer. However, it has been shown to cause leukemia in mice, so there is strong evidence that it is a carcinogen among humans as well.

Another agent, known as tretinoin, can be somewhat effective in treating skin discoloration, particularly when used alongside hydroquinone, but it causes inflammation and UVA/UVB sensitivity, so it is quite problematic for users who wish to be able to go outdoors or sit near windows. It is often combined with cortisone to mitigate its irritant property, but regular use of cortisone causes skin damage in the form of thinning the epidermis and weakening the skin’s collagen, so that has significant long-term side effects as well.

The most recent entry into the topical skin lightening arena is arbutin, a hydroquinone derivative that can be found in the leaves of the bearberry. It is still inconclusive whether it bears similar cancer risks, although it is known that when taken internally, intestinal bacteria can convert arbutin back into hydroquinone, which creates an intestinal cancer risk.

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