Skin lightening: The facts

Fact: some black women brighten and lighten their skin, and rather than ignoring this emotive and divisive issue, here's what you need to know

Any skin tone is capable of looking its best and brightest, and black women shouldn’t be exempt from trying to achieve this. Why should we have to hang on to our blemishes because we don’t want to be accused of not loving ourselves as we are? Who wouldn’t want to look their glowing best? However, the cultural ramifications of putting a higher value on lighter skin, has had a negative impact on many black women who are using skin lighteners to make the best of their complexions. It’s only natural that women want to tackle areas of darker pigmentation like acne scars, dark elbows and knees. Many women strive for an even skin tone, but that isn’t to say that no matter how much of a cultural premium is placed on lighter skin, that you should potentially harm your skin to get it. To give you an informed choice, we take a look at the different skin lightening methods available. And it’s interesting to note that not all skin lightening is created equal. You can actually break it down into three categories: Brightening, Lightening and Whitening.

B R I G H T E N E R S address things like hyperpigmentation – sun-spots, acne scars, freckles – they are not meant to alter your natural skin colour. The skin is continuously creating new skin cells to replace dead skin. Often, these older skin cells remain on the skin’s surface and can cause it to appear dull and old. Skin brightening can help you improve the way your skin naturally sheds dead skin cells.

B E S T  SK I N  B R I G H T E N I N G  I N G R E D I E N TS

Look for treatments that include micro-exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids (lactic acid, glycolic acid), rice bran, vitamins A and E. By using micro-exfoliant products, the dead layer of the skin sheds so that newer cells can take their place.

L I G H T E N E R S are more intense and work by inhibiting melanin production so you don’t tan in the sun. Most of these products are made with chemicals called tyrosinase. This active ingredient stops an enzyme in the skin from producing melanin, and depending on how strong a formula you use, they can gradually return your skin to its original, pre-sun lighter shade. Skin lighteners will lighten your skin, so use them only for spot/area treatments rather than all over.

B E S T  SK I N  L I G H T E N I N G  I N G R E D I E N T S

Look for products that contain tyrosinase inhibitors like alpha arbutin, licorice root, and Indian gooseberry, vitamins A and C, and papaya.

WH I T E N E R S are the most intense and are also potentially the most dangerous. These products actually bleach your skin. People who whiten do not want their pre-tan colour, they actually want to lighten their complexion a few shades lighter than their natural skin tone, and will often use under the counter products to achieve this. We suggest steering clear of this category as it can be dangerous and damaging to the skin. Hydroquinone has traditionally been the main ingredient in many skin lightening products because it is less expensive than many of the other treatments and ingredients on the market. Its use is banned in the UK and Europe as it was discovered to cause, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, ochrinosis, which causes the affected skin to go black and thicken, and in extreme cases, cancer. Mercury is the most destructive and ugliest ingredient on the skin lightening and whitening list. Mercury is toxic and can cause psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems and prolonged use can cause mercury poisoning. Its use has not been banned in the developing countries, so any skin bleach brought under the counter may contain this poisonous ingredient. Always check that mercury is not an ingredient in your skin lightening cream. Mercury can also go under other names including: cinnabar, calomel, mercauro, or mercuric.

Initial damage


It’s important to practice safe sun care when using a skin lightener as your skin is more photo-sensitive. A skin lightening product purchased over-the-counter won’t have enough of its whitening active ingredient to turn a ‘Lupita’ toned woman into a ‘Rihanna’ complexion. The best it can do is give you a clearer complexion. But you’ll be risking so much more if you buy an under-the-counter product as these are unregulated and may contain more than the two per cent hydroquinone that was deemed safe to use before the ban. While skin lighteners can be very useful in removing blemishes their overuse can thin the skin and cause irreversible damage like stretch marks. There are a few products in the hair shops that can be dangerous, especially if you are sensitive to a particular ingredient. Always exercise caution and do spot tests on new products. Overall there are great products available for black skin, but if at anytime something doesn’t agree with your skin, you should stop using it. Understanding how the active ingredients perform is important, depending on what your skincare concerns are, so explore the market to see what works best for you. If you have any skin issues, please seek a professional consultation.

1 Comment

  1. by Ray Watson on 04/05/2022  1:12 PM Reply

    I am in love with dermalmd lightening serum. It’s perfect for my skin combination. It makes my skin tone lighter leaves my skin feeling smooth and moisturised. It is a good skin care treatment and should be added to the daily night routine.

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