4 Most Dangerous Skin Lightening Ingredients to Avoid

Skin lightening sometimes gets a bad rep because of all the dangerous skin lightening ingredients that have been used throughout the years. And that’s really unfortunate – because there are so many ways to lighten your skin effectively and safely without resorting to harmful ingredients.

But most of us would go to great lengths to achieve a glowing, radiant complexion – and sometimes that includes a trip out into dangerous territory, including experimenting with creams, lotions, and potions with suspect ingredients.

However, experimentation, especially when it comes to your skin, might not always yield positive results.

Ingredients from questionable sources or those not properly tested and approved by the FDA (or banned by the FDA) can cause serious skin reactions and do a lot more harm than good.

While there are some gems that provide fantastic results, the more common case with untested products is a severe allergic reaction that can cause permanent damage to the skin. This is where the importance of research comes into play. With anything that you plan to apply on your skin regularly, it is imperative to do to proper research.

Ingredients, customer reviews, product history, all of this is crucial information if you’re planning to make a purchase from websites or more niche beauty product sellers.

Don’t get us wrong, skincare is still supposed to be fun, and it’s okay to be adventurous with your choices, just ensure a product’s effectivity and safety above all else. If you’re looking to overhaul your regimen, here are some popular skin-lightening active ingredients that can do more harm than good.


In the early 1900s, Mercury became a go-to whitening agent for its ability to inhibit the formation of melanin when applied to one’s skin. It was cheap, readily available and seemed to get the job done, but the story didn’t end there.

Though popular by demand, it was soon classified as a toxin by the FDA due to the increasing number of reports of mercury affecting a lot more than your skin. It has been shown to cause kidney damage, excessive scarring, and skin discoloration. In extreme cases, it even peels off the outer layer of skin and gives one a blue-grey complexion.

Aside from physical effects, it can affect brain functions too. Prolonged use of mercury-laced products has been shown to cause increased anxiety, depression, psychosis, as well as serious brain defects to your child if you use mercury while pregnant. Definitely not good.

So how do you protect yourself against unknowingly being a victim of mercury poisoning? Be wary of purchasing any homemade creams – especially ones that come without a verifiable list of ingredients – that markets itself as a fast-acting whitening cream, freckle eraser or age-spot remover. If it promises immediate results in whitening skin without listing the exact ingredients it uses, it’s probably too good to be true.

Again, be scrupulous with ingredient labels. First, make sure that any product you use claims to be FDA approved, and has an actual ingredient listing, anything without that you should junk immediately.

Oh, and when you’re poring over the ingredient list, just looking for the word mercury is not enough. Companies can be tricky and some use other names such as mercurous chloride, calomel, or mercuric. Seeing any of these words in your favorite moisturizer means you should immediately toss it in the trash.

Also, be careful where you purchase your skincare products. Your best bet is to always source them from reputable stores and online websites that are known to sell genuine products.

To make sure you successfully avoid mercury and other dangerous skin lightening ingredients don’t buy homemade products. Especially in the case of skin whitening creams and lotions that promise to lighten or whiten instantly. Only use a product if it has an official label and ingredients list.

Also, be extra careful when making purchases abroad. For one, you may not understand the language sufficiently to judge the trustworthiness of the product label or you may misunderstand the usage instructions. Especially if the price seems too good to resist, it may come at considerably more expensive consequences.

All in all, the best way to stay away from dangerous skin lightening ingredients is to know them well and to know your sources (for example brand names).

Natural alternatives to mercury

Niacinamide or vitamin B3

Niacinamide is also known as niacin or nicotinamide and it’s one of the forms of the vitamin B3. You get niacinamide from certain foods, especially in animal-based products, but also in certain nuts, seeds and green vegetables.

This is a good option to replace dangerous skin lightening ingredients in cosmetic products, also capable of reducing skin hyperpigmentation. Niacinamide also works great when it comes to improving the appearance of aging and photodamaged skin.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is one of the champions among alternatives to dangerous   skin lightening ingredients. It’s good at protecting the skin from the damaging UV rays and, of course, it boasts its famed anti-aging benefits. Vitamin C helps revitalize the skin since it stimulates collagen production.

Indian gooseberry (Amla)

Here is one from the family of plant extracts that has been found to be equally as effective as hydroquinone. This is a plant that falls in the group of


Let’s be clear, steroids are not the bad guy all the time. In fact, it is common for dermatologists to prescribe steroids for anti-inflammatory cases such as eczema or psoriasis, however,they have never been intended for prolonged cosmetic use, especially if you use them outside the prescription period.

If you’ve used steroids (corticosteroids being one of the most common), you may have noticed that they do have an effect on lightening your skin, but this doesn’t mean it’s safe to include in your nightly routine.

Steroids lighten skin in either of these three dangerous ways. It could blanch the skin by causing your blood vessels to constrict and let less blood pass through to give skin a paler appearance.

Another way is that it can also slow down your body’s natural process of skin cell turnover, which results in fewer melanocytes formed. This is particularly dangerous because it can cause skin’s epidermis to permanently be thinner.

Lastly, steroids can inhibit the production of key hormones that regulate processes in the body, which can include but is certainly not limited to just melanocytes.

When using steroids, doctors usually give a very specific set of instructions with a minimum number of days when it can be used. This is done to avoid any long term damage to your skin from the steroids. Don’t be tempted to risk permanent damage by using it for longer than prescribed just to achieve whiter skin.

As of this writing, corticosteroids are still strictly used for dermatological inflammations and not to serve cosmetic purposes. Don’t fall into the trap of using prescription medicine if you don’t actually have a prescription since key ingredients might cause severe reactions on your skin.


Monobenzone is relatively new to the market and is being used by doctors to manage patients with Vitiligo, a disease that causes the body to kill select melanocytes on its own. Monobenzone medicine comes in to even out the skin lightening that Vitiligo causes. It was popularized by Michael Jackson, one of the most famous people afflicted with Vitiligo.

You should not use this medication if you are allergic to monobenzone. Do not use monobenzone in any areas that are not affected by vitiligo.

Monobenzone is not for treating freckles, café-au-lait spots, sun damage, melanoma, jaundice, or other pigmentation disorders not caused by vitiligo.

It may take up to 4 months to complete the depigmentation of treated skin. Keep using the medication as directed and tell your doctor if your condition does not improve after 1 month of treatment.

Skin treated with monobenzone may be especially sensitive to sunlight or irritation for the rest of your life.

Avoid exposure to sunlight or tanning beds. Monobenzone can make you sunburn more easily. Wear protective clothing and use sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) when you are outdoors.

Using monobenzone may also cause changes in the color of your untreated skin. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about possible depigmentation of other skin areas not affected by vitiligo.

Some entrepreneurial businessman wanted to turn this drug into a more lucrative endeavor and started marketing it as an over the counter skin-lightening cure. However scientists are quickly discovering that this product does not provide benefits to those without Vitiligo, in fact, it actually does excessive damage to the body.

While Monobenzone kills melanocytes, it has no measurable effect on the follicular reserve, which means any lightening it can cause is just temporary, and your dark spots will make a reappearance in a year or two even with continued use of the product.

It also causes uneven depigmentation of skin and increased sun sensitivity. The uneven depigmentation it causes also poses a threat to those that come in close contact with you. If you’re a user of Monobenzone you can inadvertently cause depigmentation in the skin of others by simple skin contact. So this is one skin lightening ingredient that’s not only harmful to you but for your loved ones as well. Avoid it!


Okay, hydroquinone is a controversial skin lightening ingredient but it differs from the others on this list in one crucial way: it is safe as long as you know how to use it properly.

Hydroquinone has gotten a bad reputation as a dangerous skin whitening ingredient since it was banned in Africa in the 1990s, with the European FDA quickly following suit. However, further research on the ingredient is proving to be promising. For starters, the banned Hydroquinone in Africa was found to contain steroids and mercury, which were the actual culprits of the harmful effects, and not the hydroquinone itself.

Because of this, scientists became intrigued by the effectivity of pharmaceutical hydroquinone, and so far studies using this chemical have garnered positive results. It is widely acknowledged that a dosage of 2% or less of this chemical is safe for the skin. For those with more severe cases of discoloration, doctors can prescribe creams with up to 4% Hydroquinone content.

So how does hydroquinone work? It functions as a melanin inhibitor by giving the Tyrosinase in your body something else to attach to, thereby preventing the formation of excess melanin. This excess melanin, when clumped together forms dark spots on the skin. It’s also one of the few skin whitening products that consistently lightens skin within a specified period of time (8-12 weeks).

However, be cautious since Hydroquinone is not meant for long term use. In fact, doctors prescribe it for a minimum of three months only lest it affects you by inhibiting other key enzymes in your body, such as homogentisic acid oxidase. A lack of this enzyme can result in ochronosis, a disease that causes patches of blue-black skin to appear on the skin (more common in dark-skinned users).

As tempted as you are by the effectivity of hydroquinone, not all good things come without cost. Melanin inhibition cannot be permanent, the minute you go off the drug, the skin’s storage of tyrosinase will go back to normal levels, causing you to return to your original color.

To keep the results you get with hydroquinone treatment, first, make sure that the hydroquinone you use has optimal effectivity through proper storage by keeping it in a dark place away from prolonged sun and air exposure that might cause the active ingredients to be less potent. Always top your hydroquinone application with a layer of SPF, and set reminders to constantly re-apply throughout the day since you don’t want all the hard work you put into skin lightening to fade away with careless sun exposure.

When it comes to skin lightening, the jury is still out if there truly is a magic bullet product that is safe, effective, and can lighten your skin permanently in a short period of time. However, with the dangers presented by strong chemical ingredients, it is also worthwhile to look into natural skin lightening ingredients sourced from plants and fruit extracts that may help you achieve the same effects but in a safer manner.

And always remember that when it comes to skin improvement there are rarely any shortcuts, and the trick to lighter, brighter skin is as much about the products you use as the dedication and regularity you put into maintaining your lightening skincare routine!

What to Do if You Experience Skin Lightening Side Effects

If you experience side effects while using a prescribed skin-lightening cream, contact the prescriber for advice.

If you have any alarming symptoms that require urgent medical attention, such as a nasty rash, swelling or increasing pain, go to your local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Laser skin lightening

A laser can also be used to lighten blemishes or dark patches of skin. This works by either removing the outer layer of skin or damaging the cells that produce melanin.

The results of laser skin lightening tend to be quite variable. It may work for some people, while for others it may not have any effect, or the skin lightening may only be temporary.

Laser skin lightening isn’t usually available under healthcare coverage, so you’ll normally have to pay for it privately.

The cost of each session may vary widely across practitioners and is dependent on the size of the skin area, the extent of the lightning, and the equipment used. Several sessions are often needed to increase the chances of the procedure being effective.

What it involves

Before the procedure starts, a test may be carried out on a small area of skin to see how it reacts. If you don’t experience any problems, you’ll usually have your first session a few weeks later.

You may experience a stinging or pricking sensation during the procedure so a local anesthetic cream may be used to numb your skin beforehand.

During a session you’d be given special goggles to wear to protect your eyes from the laser a small handheld laser device would be held against your skin – this may feel like a rubber band snapping at the skin a jet of cold air may be blown onto your skin to keep it cool throughout. Each session will usually last around 30 minutes to an hour. You can go home when it’s finished.


It can take a week or two for your skin to recover from laser skin lightening. You may want to take a few days off work until your skin’s appearance starts to improve.

Your skin would normally be red and swollen for a few days and may be bruised or crusty for a week or two.

Over the next few weeks, your skin should start to fade to a lighter color. It will be sensitive to the sun for up to six months.

You can aid your recovery by only washing the treated area gently with unperfumed soap and carefully dabbing it dry regularly applying aloe vera gel or petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) to cool and soothe the treated area not picking at any scabs or crusts that develop taking painkillers such as paracetamol for any discomfort and holding an ice pack to the skin to reduce any swelling applying sun cream to the treated area for at least six months to protect it from the aggravating effects of the sun.

Are There Natural Alternatives For Skin Whitening?

Since many chemical-based skin lighteners have now been found to have serious health concerns, researchers and skin care companies have been prompted to look for safer alternatives to the dangerous skin lightening ingredients out there – which is good news for us!

Extensive testing of many plant species has to lead to the discovery of a number of all natural lightening ingredients that act to suppress melanin production, in the same way as their chemical-based counterparts, but they are non-toxic and do not carry the risk of serious side effects.

While natural skin lightening products still vary they will generally include ingredients such as arbutin, emblica, liquorice, mulberry extract, kojic acid or Vitamin C.

1. Kojic Acid

Kojic acid is derived from Koji (a Japanese mushroom). Kojic acid lightens the skin by inhibiting the production of an enzyme in the skin called tyrosinase which in turn reduces the amount of melanin produced. Kojic acid is one of the most popular natural ingredients found in skin lightening products.

2. Mulberry

This skin lightening ingredient is extracted from the roots of the mulberry plant. Mulberry is said to be more effective than hydroquinone and kojic acid in the sense that significantly lower concentrations are needed to have the same effect as higher concentrations of kojic acid and hydroquinone.

3. Alpha Arbutin

Alpha arbutin has a stronger effect than beta-arbutin and is also commonly found in skin lightening products as a safer alternative to hydroquinone.

4. Beta-Arbutin (Bearberry Extract)

Beta arbutin (commonly known as just arbutin) is derived from the leaves of bearberry, cranberry and blueberry plants. It works in a similar way to kojic acid, in that it inhibits the production of tyrosinase to restrict the amount of pigment produced. Although naturally derived, it can cause skin irritation in some people with sensitive skin.

5. Glutathione

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that has several health benefits including boosting the immune system and cleansing the liver. The only known side effect of glutathione is skin whitening. All these health benefits plus a smooth, glowing, lighter skin tone – amazing! Glutathione is commonly found in skin lightening pills but can also be used topically in the form of skin lightening soaps.

6. Licorice Root

Licorice is commonly used in the skin lightening industry. Licorice also works to inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase to limit the amount of pigment produced. It has anti-inflammatory properties and is particularly effective at fading suntans.

7. Papaya extract

The papain enzyme found in papaya works to gently exfoliate dead skin cells and reveal new, brighter skin cells beneath. Orange and green papaya are both effective but green papaya contains more of the papain enzyme. This ingredient is most often found in soaps but sometimes in skin lightening creams too.

8. Vitamin A (Retinol)

Vitamin A Acid, also known as retinol or tretinoin increases the rate at which skin cells are renewed. Increased skin cell turnover means that the brighter, fresh skin underneath can be revealed.

9. Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)

Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide or Vitamin B3 has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is an effective topical skin lightener and works by inhibiting melanin production in the skin. Vitamin B3 is found in some skin whitening products and sunscreens but it is also possible to buy Niacinamide capsules where the contents can be applied directly to the skin.

10. Vitamin C

At concentrations of about 10%, Vitamin C works to suppress the production of pigment in the skin. Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate is a derivative of Vitamin C and this is the form of the ingredient that is commonly found in skin whitening products. Vitamin C can also protect the skin from ultraviolet rays.

These ingredients are not usually intended to work in isolation. An effective skin lightening treatment combines several of these ingredients as they tend to work well together to produce the desired results.