3 Most Dangerous Skin Lightening Ingredients to Avoid

Skin lightening sometimes gets a bad rep because of dangerous skin lightening ingredients that have been used throughout the years. And it’s 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 on 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.

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 of 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 have been shown to cause increased anxiety, depression, psychosis, as well as serious brain defects to your child if you use mercury while pregnant. Definitely no bueno.

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 is 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, mercuric, or mercurio. Seeing any of these words in your favorite moisturizer means tossing it in the trash pronto.

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. Be extra careful when making purchases abroad especially if the price seems too good to resist, it may come at an even more expensive consequence.


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 it has never been intended for prolonged cosmetic use, especially if you use it 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 to less 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.

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 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 on 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 for 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 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 acknowledge 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 to Ochronosis, a disease causing patches of blue-black skin 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 reapply 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 skin care routine!

Leave a Reply