Are Skin Lightening Products Safe?

3 min read  |  October 19, 2022  | 
Disponible en Español |

If you spend time in the Florida sun, your face may feature freckle-like patches of brown or gray-brown spots. Dermatologists call this melasma. Besides sun exposure, those dark spots can show up during pregnancy, too, when the body experiences hormonal changes. 

Have you tried banishing your blemishes with products claiming to lighten or improve your skin’s appearance? If so, you may be confused by all the skin-lightening products sold today. 

What skin conditions benefit from skin-lightening products? 

Danyelle M. Dawes, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of Miami Health System: Melasma and other skin conditions resulting in increased pigmentation. Because sunlight can cause dark patches on the skin to become even darker, my first recommendation to any patient with pigmentation issues is to invest in a good sunscreen with a high SPF. 

How do dermatologists help patients with melasma?

Dr. Dawes: A correct diagnosis is crucial for proper treatment, which is why I suggest getting evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist. Getting evaluated gives patients the most effective regimen based on their medical history and skin type. Once diagnosed, the dermatologist can recommend a variety of therapeutic options, such as prescription creams, oral medications, chemical peels, or laser treatments. 

Patients often buy many over-the-counter products hoping for results. Some products can easily be $50-$100 each. From a monetary perspective, it would be more affordable to get a prescription that has a greater chance of being effective – that way, you avoid the hassle of trying out various creams that may not be effective. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are no FDA-approved skin-lightening products available over the counter. However, 2% hydroquinone, a popular skin-lightening or bleaching product, is still widely sold. Is there a safe and effective percentage of hydroquinone for treating melasma and other pigmentation problems?

Dr. Dawes: Two percent hydroquinone has been sold over the counter for several decades, even as research indicated that regular use of creams with this ingredient caused disfigurement that is often permanent. 

I discourage buying these products, especially if you are not under the care of a dermatologist. Dermatologists often use prescription hydroquinone at percentages of 4, 8, or 10% to treat pigmentation issues. The dosage effective for each patient can vary – it is best that the patient get evaluated by a dermatologist who can prescribe the correct regimen. Under the care of a dermatologist, the patient is instructed on how to use hydroquinone safely to reduce negative side effects. 

Is hydroquinone more effective than Retin-A for some skin conditions?

Dr. Dawes: Hydroquinone and Retin-A are both very effective in treating skin pigmentation issues. Both creams work differently to lighten pigmentation; one is not necessarily superior to the other. A person could start with a retinoid product to see if they improve. However, when hydroquinone and Retin-A are used together, most patients have good results.

To schedule a consultation with Dr. Dawes, call 305-243-4000 or toll-free at 1-800-432-0191.

Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.

Last reviewed in October 2023, by Ronald B. Goldberg, an endocrinologist with the University of Miami Health System.

Tags: dermatology care in Miami, OTC skin products, safe skin lightening, skin lightening products, skin lightening treatment

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