Side Effects of Skin Whitening Creams

Using skin lightening products to get fairer skin continues to be a widespread phenomenon. In certain countries like India and Philippines, commercials popularizing creams with skin whitening abilities take a big part of television airtime. Even though our society is learning to appreciate the different forms of beauty across races, fairer skin is still coveted by many.  

The need to have fairer skin is quite popular across the Caribbean, African, and Asian countries because of the set beauty standards across the world. These countries have however been fighting against this multi-billion dollar industry. Why would there be such uproar against an industry purely fuelled by “willing buyer, willing seller” kind of relationship?

After looking into the most popular skin whitening products across the world, we were staggered by the number of health risks that some of these creams expose you to. These risks can be attributed to the individual or combination of ingredients contained in the products. To give you an even clearer picture, we took a closer look at some of the most common ingredients in skin lightening creams and their side effects.


This is a very common ingredient in skin lightening creams. It has been in use as an effective skin lightening agent for more than 5 decades due to its melanin inhibiting abilities. Hydroquinone is used in the treatment of skin hyperpigmentation conditions such as melasma, chloasma, sunspots, acne scars etc.

Even with such a good profile, let’s make this clear; Hydroquinone [C6H4(OH)2] is made from Benzene, a carcinogen. Do you know what’s common between processing of black and white film, rubber manufacturing, and hair dyes? Well, all of them utilize hydroquinone for their production.

As a result of Hydroquinone being linked to carcinogenicity and exogenous ochronosis among other health risks, many countries and regions have banned its use.

Even though the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) proposed a ban on the use of hydroquinone since 2006, an earlier regulation that allowed skin-lightening creams containing 2% hydroquinone to be obtained over-the-counter and 4 % hydroquinone to require a prescription is still in effect.

Side Effects of Hydroquinone

The full list of potential health risks caused by hydroquinone is yet to be discovered since researches done have produced conflicting results. Some cited complications include genetic alterations, carcinogenicity or ability to cause cancer, thyroid disorders and adrenal dysfunctions which were detected in rats/mice orally given hydroquinone.

Mild stinging, redness, irritation, and dryness are common side effects associated with topical use of Hydroquinone. They can escalate to cracking of the skin, blistering, or severe redness, stinging or irritation. While these can be short lived, the same cannot be said of the effects of long-term use of hydroquinone.

With prolonged use, hydroquinone is known to cause bluish-black colouration on the skin especially in dark-skinned people. This condition is referred to as exogenous ochronosis. Contact leucoderma or vitiligo, which is complete depigmentation, can also occur in treated areas.

What happens if you use hydroquinone for longer periods of time?

In case you are using products containing Hydroquinone for longer periods of time, you may develop a condition known as “ochronosis.” This condition leads to a blue-black darkening in certain areas of the skin.

You can also check out this video for more effects of hydroquinone:

Steroid Creams for Skin Lightening

Steroids, also known as corticosteroids are used to treat certain skin conditions. These include psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, itching and rashes. They are also used in skin lightening. They are not recommended, since using steroids on a long-term basis and in large doses can have adverse effects on your health.

However, research shows that they are misused for the purpose of skin lightening. This leads to thinning of the skin, stretch marks, easy bruising or tearing of the skin, enlarged blood vessels, increased hair growth in treated areas, steroid dependence, and pustular psoriasis among other side effects.

Here's a small selection of what can happen when you use steroid creams:

Excess hair growth at the point of application associated with topical steroid use. Source: DrArpitajain.com

Steroid rosacea, a side effect typical of long-term use of steroids. Source: www.fightvitiligo.com

Thinning of the skin can manifest as exposed blood vessels, bruised skin or stretch marks. Source: YourBusinessHive.com

Talking of Mercury

Mercury is another chemical that is commonly found in numerous skin lightening creams. Back in 2013, the FDA released a notice wherein they requested people to refrain from the use of creams containing mercury.

Mercury leads to mercuric poisoning. The chemical is very easily absorbed into the body. But the problem lies in its removal from the body. If you use creams containing mercury, then you might get skin rashes, discolouration of the skin, and may even lead to scarring.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), using skin-whitening creams containing mercury can lead to liver and the nervous system damage. Mercury can also lead to depression and even interferes with children’s mental growth.

When you go shopping for skin whitening creams, keep an eye out for words such as “mercury,” “mercurous chloride,” “mercuric,” “Mercurio,” or “calomel.” Unfortunately, not all manufacturers list their ingredients, which is why you should only buy products from reputable manufacturers.

The damage to the skin is as a result of the use of mercury-based products. Source: Steemit.com

As mentioned above, the side effects of skin lightening creams are dependent on the ingredients. Some of these creams come with either one of these or a combination of several. In light of these, here is a summary of what could go wrong with the use of these creams.

  • Skin Cancer: Compounds used in skin lightening creams such as Hydroquinone, mercury, and steroids have carcinogenic properties. This means that they have the potential to cause cancer when used for long.
  • Liver, kidney or nerve damage: The long-term use of creams containing mercury and its compounds can lead to severe organ damage.
  • Thinning of the Skin: Exploitation of skin whitening creams can lead to severe bruising, exposed capillaries, stretch marks, etc.
  • Reduction of Skin Healing Properties: Our skin has a regeneration property which means that if you get an injury on your skin, then your skin can heal itself. But long exposure to skin whitening creams can eliminate this property from your skin.
  • Scarring: This could result from pustules, cracking of the skin, or other skin conditions that may arise with use of the various creams.
  • Skin Irritations: Prolonged use of skin whitening creams can lead to redness, peeling of the skin, rash, dryness, and burning.
  • Neurological fetal damage- exposure to mercury when one is expectant can have serious impact on fetal brain.
  • Darkening or complete de-pigmentation. This is especially associated with long-term use of creams containing hydroquinone.
  • Photosensitivity: Skin lightening creams make your skin susceptible to the harmful UV rays

So, the bottom line is that a lot of the skin whitening creams are harmful. But are there any alternatives? The answer is Yes. Check out the following articles:

Article last updated: 29/11/2018


sonia knight

Sonia Knight is the founder of be:skinformed.

Apart from having her own experience with hyperpigmentation, Sonia has gained vast knowledge in the dermatology field. For more info on this, check out our about us page.
  • zeenath sahdiq says:

    I was using a whitening creamand I did a clean up after few weeks my face colour changed is there any solutions for it

    • Sonia Knight says:

      Hi Zeenath
      Thanks for getting in touch
      I would need to know more, like what creams did you use and what exactly happened, preferably with images to advise you any further.

  • Faisal bin hossen says:

    hello mam, actually, I m using the “goree” cream almost 1 year. now I m stop useing the cream. now my skin effected by the acne. every single morning I m discover new pimple in my skin. actually mam, day by day it is killing me. I can’t do anything. this issue loss my confidence. most important, mam, I m also leave my job for my pimple skin. plzzzz mam help me. 😞😞😰

    Age: 22
    Gender: male

    • Sonia Knight says:

      Hi Faisal
      Thanks for getting in touch.
      Unfortunately, I can’t offer any advice like that over the internet so your best bet would be to go and see your GP/dermatologist.
      Best wishes,

  • Rose says:

    Hello,please l need your help am very fair in complexion but as time goes on my skin started developing fault what do I do

    • Sonia Knight says:

      Hi Rose

      Thanks for getting in touch.
      Could you tell me more as it’s very hard to advise you based on this info.


  • Rodgelyn Mae says:

    Our skin is very important and I really appreciate your blog for its detailed content. I would also love to help others

  • Wilson Edna says:

    Please ma, I am from Nigeria and am fair in complexion, i was using a cream name Dawmy lighting body cream for over 10years now, but suddenly last month, i started noticing some black spots coming out on my face below my eye and also people where telling me that my legs and hands where becoming too white, showing green vines, that i should stop the cream, and i stopped using it for a while,…then i was now introduce to papaya oil to remove the black spots that there coming out on my face, and after i stated using it for about 4 to 5 days, i started noticing blacks appearing around my eyes both sides, then i stopped using the papaya oil and started using back my cream which clear the blacks from my face around my eyes, both later the blacks started appearing again, and this time, the facial hair on my face was also starting to increase as well, and also strach marks around my under laps too…then i was told to stop using Dawmy and start with another cream, which i did, i went to a cosmetic shop at the market were i live and asked for a good cream for a natural fair skin person, and i was giving a new cream named: Crystal white UV lightening milk, that it will clear the blacks from my face around my eyes, which i started using for almost a month now, both i have not noticed any change on the blacks around my eyes. Please i need help and i was to know what i can use that will clear the blacks from my face please. Thanks as i will be waiting for your reply.

    • Sonia Knight says:

      Hi there!

      Thanks for your detailed description.

      I think your best option would be to visit a dermatologist, someone who is better qualified to advise you than someone on your local market. But please, take all the creams you have been using with you so they can have a clear overview of what exactly you have been using so they could advise you accordingly.


  • attez nerp says:

    when I was 16 a cousin sold me a popular skin lightening cream and I put it on my face before falling asleep. The next morning my grandmother asked me what was on my face and I told her She told me to give it back and let my cousin keep the money. Further stating that if I used this cream in the next 10-20 years I would have black and blue prune-like growths on mainly my cheeks and here and there over my forehead and face, Everyone whom continued to use the cream developed these horrendous growths years later.

  • Karen says:

    Hi Sonia. I noticed that some dark spots were starting to appear on my face, turning into small moles that I didn’t have before. So I looked for creams that could help me with skin whitening and reducing dark spots. I got a cream called Kmele and it is produced in China. I had tried Korean creams before and since I had no problem I thought I could give it a try. I was supposed to put it on as a night cream every night for 15 days, and wash it off in the morning, then just apply some mosturizing cream, and I was told it would act as a peeling cream. So I was not surprised to see some of my sking coming of little by little. The problem is that as I wash it and exfoliate my skin, I can’t take all that dead skin away, then when I put a mosturizing cream on, it started to burn on the third night I put used it so I decided to stop applying it.
    Now my problem is that no matter how much mosturizing cream I put on, it dries so fast and so much that I have to put more and more cream on.

  • Hergy says:

    Les effets des crèmes éclaircissante

  • Khaalid maxamuud says:

    Skin infections

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