How Often Should You Apply Skin Lightening Cream?

Thousands, if not millions, of people around the world have a desire to lighten their skin. Some go extremely far with it, like Michael Jackson. Most only do a little bit of whitening. Touching up small marks, birthmarks, scars, and other blemishes can help even out your complexion without transforming you into a completely new person. 

What is Skin Lightening Cream and How Does it Work?

Skin lightening cream is a topical application salve that penetrates deep into the epidermis. Once there, it targets melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that contain melanin, which is responsible for a dark pigment in people and animals. Melanistic animals have dark/black fur, and melanistic people have dark skin. 

There are also skin lightening treatments using lasers, that can precisely target melanistic patches on the skin, such as blemishes and acne scars, to destroy the melanocytes and leave only lighter skin behind. Obviously, you can't do these at home, so we're focusing on skin creams today.

Skin lightening creams take a while to start working, and even longer to completely remove a blemish. This is because they are a very low concentration. Higher concentrations of the chemicals involved can cause all kinds of issues, which we'll discuss later. 

Typically, a skin lightening cream will take 3-4 weeks to start showing results, and 3-4 times that to fully remove a blemish and even out your skin tone in a given area. It's important, too, that you don't over-apply a skin lightening cream, especially if you have darker skin naturally. You might end up lightening skin you don't want lightened.

Warning: if you're using a skin lightening cream for more than four weeks and it has not yet shown any improvement on the blemish you're targeting, it's unlikely to work. You can try a different chemical compound – there are a few different formulas – but the one you've currently tried is not likely to work. Avoid using it for too long once you've discovered it isn't working, as it can cause unwanted side effects.

How Often Should You Use Skin Lightening Cream?

In general, you want to follow the instructions on the box or container of skin lightening treatment you've purchased. Different formulas with different chemicals in different concentrations require different usage patterns.

Most skin lightening creams will ask you to apply them once or twice a day, usually in the evening. They should only be applied to the darkened area of skin specifically. Some more potent creams should be used every other day, or only a couple of days per week. Additionally, once you've lightened your blemish, you may be asked to maintain its appearance by using the cream once every couple of weeks, to ensure that it stays gone.

Again, however, you should talk to your dermatologist and refer to the instructions on the cream you use for specific timings.

What Kinds of Compounds are Used in Skin Lightening Creams?

There are a number of different chemicals used in skin lightening creams. Some of them are well-known, while others are still experimental. 

One thing to be aware of is that some skin lightening products either do not list their ingredients, or list odd names for ingredients, to hide what they truly are. If you're not sure what an ingredient is, it's worthwhile to look it up in a database like Skin Deep to make sure it's safe for your use.

Hydroquinone is one of the most common ant-melanocyte compounds found in prescription-strength skin lightening treatments. This ingredient is banned in many countries for over-the-counter sales, primarily because of the risk of side effects. When prescribed by a dermatologist and used correctly, it's relatively safe, but you should avoid this ingredient if you're buying online or over the counter.

Corticosteroids are also a common ingredient. These do not lighten your skin on their own. Rather, they stimulate production of fresh skin, replacing skin cells that are damaged by the lightening ingredients. Corticosteroids can cause problems as well, so they are just as regulated as hydroquinone.

Some skin lightening creams contain mercury. Mercury can be dangerous in certain forms and in certain concentrations, as it's a toxic heavy metal. Avoid any product that includes ingredients like mercury, mercurous chloride, calomel, mercurio, or mercuric anything

Other ingredients you can look for in a skin lightening cream are safer and softer on the skin. These can be found in over the counter products and are much safer to use, but they may be less effective. They are generally your first option, before turning to a dermatologist and looking for a prescription treatment. These include:

  • Vitamin E. This is an antioxidant that penetrates the skin to reduce redness and inflammation that can lead to blemishes.
  • Vitamin B3. This vitamin helps bolster the elasticity of your skin, similar to collagen.
  • Licorice extract. This is a natural ingredient that helps remove dark spots and blemishes under the skin.
  • Glycolic or salicylic acid. These light acids help strip away darker outer layers of skin to reveal softer, smoother, lighter inner layers. Be sure not to over-use them!

You may also see ingredients like lemon extract to help soften and heal skin, and alpha hydroxy acid to help exfoliate and get the cream to penetrate. Caffeine is sometimes included as a vasodilator to reduce redness.  Some products also contain things like "NASA stem cell technology", which is a nonsense buzzword meant to make you think there's some important science behind the use of an ingredient in a way it wasn't initially meant to be used. Try to avoid meaningless buzzwords and claims of this nature.

Are There Any Risks with Using Skin Lightening Creams?

Unfortunately, yes. Skin lightening is a procedure that destroys certain kinds of cells in your skin, with the hope that the skin cells that replace them are lighter in shade. This can have a variety of unintended consequences and side effects. Oh, don't worry that there are a lot of listed side effects below; most of them are minor, and they're often quite rare. To be careful, though, always test a skin cream on a small patch of skin out of the way before using it on large patches or your face.

It might not work. Perhaps the least dangerous side effect is that the cream you've chosen simply doesn't work for you. The blemish might be too deep, or caused by something the cream can't reach. In some cases, the cream might not even have an active ingredient that lightens skin, so it will never work. In these cases, the worst that happens is you're out some money.

It might work too well. In some cases, a skin lightening cream works very well; even too well. If you over-apply it, you might lighten a portion of your skin you didn't need or want lightened, leaving a blemish in the other direction. 

It doesn't work on light blemishes. Light-colored scars and stretch marks, for example, are not good targets for a skin lightening cream. You can use such a cream on blemishes like freckles, acne scars, age or liver spots, contraceptive spotting, moles, and birthmarks of certain varieties. It will not help with things like cellulite, vascularity, or deep blemishes. It also is not meant for use in large patches of skin, such as tanned arms and legs.

It can leave skin dry and flaky or red and itchy. You can think of a skin lightening cream as a compound that is literally burning away parts of your skin in a targeted manner. Depending on the ingredients, the concentration, and the nature of your skin, this can dry it out, leave it sensitive, or damage it. Many people experience minor to major side effects including redness, itchiness, dry skin, and flaky skin. Consider trying a different skin lightening cream if you have these side effects, or using it in conjunction with a moisturizer and protective skin barrier.

It doesn't prevent future blemishes. Skin lightening cream can help lighten and remove blemishes you already have, but it is not a preventative measure. If you get acne scars, for example, these creams can lighten them, but a future breakout can bring them back. 

Some regulated ingredients can cause dangerous side effects. In particular, hydroquinone is known to cause cancer when misused. This is why it's heavily regulated and limited to prescription treatments; you need a doctor to determine that the blemish can be removed with such a treatment and that the risk of side effects is worth the effect. Additionally, ingredients like mercury can lighten skin, but they can also cause mercury poisoning, which can be difficult or impossible to treat depending on the circumstances.

They make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. Skin lightening creams reduce your skin's barrier to the elements, and makes it much more sensitive to sunburn. As such, any time you're using a skin lightening cream, you will likely be told to use sunscreen on the affected areas during the day. 

Skin can thin, revealing blood vessels. If you over-lighten your skin you can leave it thin and almost translucent, which can reveal blood vessels in the skin itself. This can be just as annoying to you, depending on your reason for lightening your skin, so you may end up worse off than you were before.

Abuse can lead to kidney, liver, or nerve damage. Some compounds like, again, mercury or hydroquinone, can cause damage to your internal organs, even though it's a topical application of the chemical. It can be absorbed through the skin and can make its way through your blood, which means it reaches organs like your liver and kidneys, which can be damaged when processing it.

Use while pregnant can lead to birth defects. For the same reason that a skin lightening cream can damage organs, it can pass into the placenta and cause damage to an unborn child. If you're pregnant or trying to become pregnant, it's better to discontinue the use of skin lightening treatments just to be safe.

Unregulated products purchased online can be contaminated. As with any health, wellness, or beauty treatment, exercise caution with what you buy online. Make sure you trust the company producing the compounds you're using.

Are There Alternatives to Skin Lightening Creams?

There are three alternatives to using a skin lightening cream.

The first is to use an organic, natural cream that has skin lightening properties. If you're afraid of compounds like hydroquinone, or you don't want to use an acid on your skin, you can instead use a natural cream made up of plant-based ingredients. These tend to be healthier and safer for your skin, but they may be less effective. As always, talk to your dermatologist about any skin product you want to use; they can point you in the right direction.

The second option is to use a concealing makeup to hide your blemishes. This is not a permanent solution, of course, but if all you really care about is your appearance, using makeup can get you there.

The third option is what we mentioned in brief up above; laser skin treatments. Laser treatments use highly focused and high-energy light to target melanocytes, to lighten and "burn away" blemishes. It's safer and more targeted than using a cream, and it will take less time, but it's more expensive to do. Again, talk to your dermatologist if you want to explore this option.

Should you use a skin lightening cream? That's entirely up to you. They can work wonders on certain kinds of blemishes, and if you're very concerned about dark spots on your skin, such as on your face, your inner thighs, or your armpits, a skin lightening cream might be able to help. On the other hand, some kinds of blemishes are less treatable, and may require a stronger compound or laser treatment. It's always worth talking to your doctor to see what they recommend first.

Have you used a skin lightening cream, particularly ours? If so, we'd love to hear your stories, both good and bad. Feel free to leave your story in the comments below!

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