Skin lightening, or skin bleaching, is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone.

It’s usually used to improve the appearance of blemishes such as birthmarks and dark patches, melasma.

Skin-lightening procedures work by reducing the concentration or production of melanin in the skin.

Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour and helps protect it from the sun.

The main techniques used in lightening the skin include:

[1.] Skin-lightening creams

[2.] Laser treatment

Trying a skin-lightening procedure is a major decision. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and the results cannot be guaranteed, and be absolutely sure about your reasons for wanting to try it and do not be in a haste into it, if you’re thinking of going ahead.

According to findings, skin-lightening techniques can result in serious side effects and complications. People with dark skin tones are particularly at risk of these problems.

Also, powerful skin-lightening creams are available on a prescription from a doctor. These usually contain one or both of the following medicines:

  • hydroquinone
  • topical steroids, such as hydrocortisone


Skin-lightening creams you can buy without a prescription:

Many alternative skin-lightening products are available to buy online or in shops or pharmacies without a prescription.


Check the ingredients of any product before buying it. Avoid it if hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury are listed in the ingredients, or if the product does not list the ingredients.

Creams that contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury, which have not been prescribed by a doctor, are banned in the UK because they can cause serious side effects if used incorrectly.

Many skin-lightening creams containing natural ingredients are also available. These are legal and unlikely to be harmful, but there’s no guarantee they work.

Here is how to use skin-lightening creams:

Doctor’s advice on how to use skin-lightening cream is essential.

You’ll usually be advised to:

  • use the minimum amount, once or twice a day, on the darkened area of the skin only
  • avoid getting the cream on the surrounding skin or in your eyes, mouth and nose
  • apply the cream with a cotton bud, or wash your hands thoroughly before and after applying the cream
  • avoid touching the treated area against another person’s skin for at least a few hours after applying the cream
  • use sun cream to protect your skin from the aggravating effects of sunlight

Most people will need to continue the treatment for around 3 or 4 months. Your doctor may recommend stopping treatment after this time, or only using it very occasionally.

Side effects of skin-lightening creams can include:

  • redness and swelling (skin irritation and inflammation)
  • a burning or stinging sensation
  • itchy and flaky skin

Possible risks of skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury include:

  • skin turning dark or too light
  • thinning of the skin
  • visible blood vessels in the skin
  • scarring
  • kidney, liver or nerve damage
  • abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)

If you’re prescribed skin-lightening cream by a doctor, they should tell you about the potential risks and how common these are.

What to do if there are problems:

In case of side effects while using a prescribed skin-lightening cream, contact a doctor for advice.

If there are severe symptoms that need urgent medical attention, such as a nasty rash, swelling or increasing pain, visit the local accident and emergency facility.

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.

Laser skin lightening may work for some people, while for others it may not have any effect, or the skin lightening may only be temporary.

What it involves:

Before the procedure starts, a test may be done on a small area of skin to see how it reacts. In the absence of any problems, the first session takes place a few weeks later.

There may be a stinging or pricking sensation during the procedure, so a local anaesthetic cream may be used to numb the skin beforehand.

During a session:

  • Special goggles are worn to protect the eyes from the laser
  • a small handheld laser device will be held against the skin – this may feel like a rubber band snapping against the skin
  • a jet of cold air may be blown onto the skin to keep it cool during the treatment

Each session will usually last around 30 minutes to an hour. When done, one can go home.


It can take 1 to 2 weeks for the 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.

It is common for skin to be red and swollen for a few days afterwards, and it may be bruised or crusty for 1 to 2 weeks.

Over the next few weeks, the skin should start to fade to a lighter colour. It will be sensitive to the sun for up to 6 months.

To aid recovery requires doing the following:

  • wash the treated area gently with non-perfumed soap and carefully dab it dry
  • regularly apply aloe vera gel or petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) to cool and soothe the treated area
  • not pick at any scabs or crusts that develop
  • take painkillers, such as paracetamol, if you have any discomfort and hold an ice pack wrapped in a towel against the skin to reduce any swelling
  • apply sun cream to the treated area for at least 6 months to protect it from the aggravating effects of the sun

Side effects to expect: It’s common after laser skin lightening to have, examples are:

  • redness and swelling
  • bruising
  • crusting
  • blistering

These effects usually pass after 1 to 2 weeks.

What could go wrong:

Serious complications of laser treatment are generally uncommon but can include:

  • scarring
  • skin infection
  • the skin turning darker or too light

It is essential to know how these complications are likely to be, and what could be done about them if they happen.

What to do when problems arise:

Cosmetic procedures can sometimes go wrong and the results may not be what you expected.

Should the results of the laser skin lightening be undesirable, or perceived inappropriate procedure, the matter can be taken up with the hospital or clinic that undertook the treatment.

It is best to go back to the practitioner who carried out the treatment in the event of any complications.

Culled/National Health Service, NHS, UK/Taiwo Akinola

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