The Truth About Skin Bleaching

Amanda Greenidge

The term “skin bleaching,” warrants thoughts of extremity. Celebrities like Azalea Banks, who has been open about her choice to lighten her skin, have become the face of the practice. However, people such as Banks are outliers when it comes to skin bleaching. For most people, skin bleaching is a way to achieve an even skin tone.

My first encounter with a skin lightening cream occurred in high school when I tried a product called Ambi. I tried the product because I was looking for ways to lighten the dark skin under my arms; these small areas of skin became a major insecurity for many women. I used Ambi on and off for some time, but eventually stopped using it when I saw its effects were only temporary. Ultimately, I accepted my darker underarms and deserted all attempts to lighten them. After speaking to Dr. Vashi, Director of the Center for Ethnic Skin at Boston University’s School of Medicine, I realized that such cases are quite common.


What is skin bleaching and what chemicals are used on the skin in the process?

I don’t like using that term, I like using ‘skin lightening products.’ Different molecules are used to help lighten dark spots. Melanin helps create color in skin that go through pathways and molecules disrupt that pathway. Some molecules help turn over skin and others destroy melanin.  


Is hydroquinone bleaching permanent or temporary?

Hydroquinone is not considered permanent. The skin color can come back. However, there are permanent ways to de-pigment the skin.


Is total body skin bleaching common?

In some societies, yes, that’s what people want. Especially in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. It’s an old belief that fairer skin is more beautiful and associated with social ranking. Sometimes I get that [patients] want to be lighter, but more so it’s just for individual spots. I like to think of it more for having even skin tone and evening areas of the face, arm, [etc.]. I don’t believe in making overall skin lighter. For the most part, patients don’t really ask for that.


Are black market products unhealthy for the skin?

Products on the black market can be adulterated and mixed with agents like mercury and steroids that aren’t listed. However, drugstores (like Walgreens) can be trusted as they have to put active ingredients on the labels.


What do terms “skin brightening and skin evening” really mean?

Skin brightening works for people who have low potency lightening agents (vitamin c, etc.). Generally, it works as a nice moisturizer with antioxidants.

Skin evening generally use hydroquinone because it’s an active ingredient of all “lightening agents.” If you don’t see hydroquinone it’s probably something with vitamin c, e, or antioxidants.


What are the positives (if there are any) and negatives of skin bleaching?

Positives- Skin Bleaching works best for dark spots and uneven skin tone. We lighten them to create more uniform color. A big complaint for patients is brown spots. It works best for patients who have brown spots on darker skin. If done properly, under physician guidance, it can remove brown spots.

Negatives- Hydroquinone can have side effects like irritation on the skin that will manifest with redness, scaling, and itchiness. Long-term use can cause permanent effects but it is extremely rare.


Is it something that you recommend?

    Personally, I don’t recommend to someone who just wants to lighten their skin, but yes, I have a lot of patients who come to me with dark spots on their face and body. However, I don’t do total body lightening.


*Interview answers are not exact transcripts


            In a society obsessed with perfection, having insecurities about your appearance is common, but it’s important to realize when those insecurities have gone too far.  In the case of skin bleaching/lightening, doing it for an even skin-tone can be safe. With the guidance of a physician, it is possible to achieve successful, healthy results. But, turning towards illicit skin bleaching products on the black market can pose hidden dangers towards your health. So, choose wisely when deciding what to put on your skin, and try to embrace its natural beauty.  


BeautyAmanda Greenidge