Skip to content

How do cosmetics for skin whitening work – and how dangerous is it?

Ever heard of cosmetics with a lightening effect? The products promise to even out skin tone and reduce pigmentary shifts in the long term. Whether there is really anything to these promises and what risks are associated with their use – Tikbow asked the experts.

Cosmetics with lightening effect – what is it?

Skin lightening or bleaching is the use of cosmetic products to reduce the amount of melanin or pigment in the skin to make it appear lighter. "Skin lightening cosmetics are expected to balance pigmentation, even skin tone and reduce dark spots, freckles and acne scars", says Dr. Ko-Ming Chen, dermatologist and dermahistologist in Düsseldorf. Skin lighteners are now in such demand that they have become an industry in their own right, with more than half of sales coming from Asian countries, where pale skin is still one of the top beauty ideals;

What skin whitening products are available?

Products for skin whitening are available in the form of creams, lotions, Öls, serums and even in the form of injections. Creams and Öle are usually richer and firmer in consistency and therefore more suitable for dry skin, while for oily skin you should reach for a light serum. Cosmeceuticals, medical cosmetics, are also popular and usually come in the form of a cream or serum, where they can be used to treat dark spots and acne scars.

How do ingredients for skin whitening work?

"Skin tone is determined by the amount of melanocytes in the skin. These are skin cells that produce melanin. Melanin is a dark brown, almost black pigment that is also responsible for making the skin appear tanned when exposed to sunlight," says Dr. Chen. Skin-lightening cosmetics target the cells that produce melanin and reduce the number of melanocytes there. The products can be used all over the face to achieve a brighter complexion, or partially to treat only certain areas of the skin.

The risks of whitening ingredients

Products for skin whitening often contain aggressive ingredients that can be harmful to health, especially when used for long periods of time, inappropriately and without medical advice. They can not only damage the skin, but also cause serious diseases,” says Dr. Ko-Ming Chen. The most common are arbutin (tyrosinase inhibitor), rucinol (melanin synthesis inhibitor), kojisäure, vitamin C and mercury. The most commonly used is hydroquinone, a chemical compound from the phenol group, which has proven to be the most effective active ingredient for skin lightening, but can also be very dangerous and is therefore already banned in the European Union and some other countries.

Are there any natural alternatives?

Instead of aggressive ingredients, there are also safe alternatives, such as the natural brightening ingredients mulberry extract, Bärentrape extract, madder extract and niacinamide (vitamin B3). Also popular is vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that also reduces melanin production, and glycolic acid, which acts like an exfoliant and removes dead skin cells.

What you should know before using

"Be sure to talk to your dermatologist in advance to have a skin condition analysis performed and a suitable product prescribed. Many products are available over-the-counter, but to be on the safe side, prefer prescription products because they are regularly tested for safety and efficacy, unlike over-the-counter products that may contain dangerous ingredients," advises Dr. Chen. Despite the mostly visible results, skin bleaching always remains an aggressive application that poses health risks. Regardless of what skin type you are.

With expert advice from Dr. Ko-Ming Chen, dermatologist and dermahistologist. Practice for dermatology and aesthetics in Düsseldorf (https://www.hautarzt-dr-chen.de)