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Board-certified dermatologist warns consumers about the dangers of skin bleaching to achieve a lighter complexion

The increasingly popular trend can have harmful and sometimes permanent side effects.

ROSEMONT, Ill. (April 23, 2021) — Despite the potential dangers of skin bleaching products, the global market for skin lighteners last year was estimated at $8.6 billion.1 With the market projected to reach $12.3 billion by 2027, board-certified dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology are expressing concern about this growing trend and the unintended health consequences of pursuing lighter skin at any cost.1

At the AAD VMX 2021, board-certified dermatologist Seemal R. Desai, MD, FAAD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, discussed the global rise in skin bleaching and the risks to consumers’ health.

“The cultural beliefs that promote the practice of skin bleaching date back centuries and deeply affect many of our patients with skin of color,” says Dr. Desai, who maintains a private practice dedicated to treating patients with skin of color. “It’s going to take time to change these deeply-rooted cultural values and psychological associations with lighter skin tones; however, we want to educate patients about the dangers of skin bleaching strictly for the sake of achieving lighter skin and encourage them to talk with their dermatologist so that we can begin changing this dialogue.”

While bleaching creams can be used safely under the direction of a board-certified dermatologist to treat pigmentary conditions like melasma, dermatologists are concerned about the use of these products to change the color of one’s complexion. Skin bleaching typically refers to the practice of using over-the-counter (and online) products marketed to lighten dark skin to achieve a lighter complexion. Because some skin bleaching products that aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) make their way to the U.S. from other countries and are sold online, these unregulated products may possibly contain dangerously high concentrations of hydroquinone and topical steroids. The combination of these two medications stops the production of melanin in the skin — the pigment produced by cells that give skin its color.

Dr. Desai warns that these unregulated products can have devastating consequences. He explains that skin rashes, steroid-induced acne and subsequent scarring, as well as thinning skin and skin ulcers (open round sores) have been linked to the use of skin bleaching products that consumers aren’t purchasing in U.S. drugstores, but rather from unknown sources online.

“The bottom line is that skin bleaching products that consumers are purchasing online and overseas may not be safe,” says Dr. Desai. “In some cases, ingredients aren’t listed on the package, which should be a big warning sign to stay away. Although rare, there have been reports of mercury and arsenic in skin bleaching products.”

In some cases, Dr. Desai says that people using skin bleaching products develop a condition called exogenous ochronosis — a rare but permanent side effect where blue and purple pigmentation appears after long-term use of bleaching creams that contain hydroquinone.

“Many people with skin of color will go to great lengths and incur great costs to change their skin tone,” says Dr. Desai. “It’s time to stop the spread of poisonous information that perpetuates beliefs that lighter skin equals more beautiful skin whether it’s through product marketing or social media and begin to empower consumers to feel beautiful and comfortable in their own natural skin color.”

For patients with pigmentary conditions like melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that create uneven skin tones, Dr. Desai encourages patients to see a board-certified dermatologist, as dermatologists are highly trained to treat these conditions safely and effectively.

To find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit aad.org/findaderm.

1 Skin Lighteners - Global Market Trajectory & Analytics; July 2020. Global Industry Analytics, Inc.

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Nicole Dobkin, ndobkin@aad.org
Julie Landmesser, JLandmesser@aad.org

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About the AAD
Headquartered in Rosemont, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology, founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 20,000 physicians worldwide, the AAD is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the AAD at (888) 462-DERM (3376) or aad.org. Follow the AAD on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology), Twitter (@AADskin), Instagram (@AADskin1), or YouTube (AcademyofDermatology).

Editor’s note: The AAD does not promote or endorse any products or services. This content is intended as editorial content and should not be embedded with any paid, sponsored or advertorial content as it could be perceived as an AAD endorsement.