There are many reasons why you might want to lighten your skin. Sun darkening can leave your skin tanned, but blotchy and uneven. Liver spots or skin lesions can be unsightly. Acne scars can be a huge blow to your self-esteem when people focus on them. You might even just want a lighter complexion. We're not here to judge; we're here to help.
Skin gets its color from a pigment called melanin. Melanin is protective; it helps block UV radiation from the sun, as well as environmental damage. It's also produced to protect sites that have been injured in the past, which is why acne scarring can often appear darker than the surrounding skin.
Whether you have scar-related melanin, hyperpigmentation, or just darker skin you want to lighten up, there are numerous products on the market meant for doing just that. Skin lightening creams are typically topical creams that, when applied to the skin, settle in. The chemicals in them – things like hydroquinone – or spices like turmeric seep into the skin, penetrating the skin barrier, and destroy the melanin. This lightens your skin and evens out your complexion.
We're no strangers to skin lightening. In addition to the product linked above, we've also written about them before.
If you've read those, you likely already know about the ins and outs of skin lightening, including the few risks that accompany the treatments. What we haven't mentioned before, however, is how long it takes these creams to work.
A General Answer
So, how long do they take to work? The answer is, "it depends on the cream."
Yeah, we know, not something you necessarily wanted to hear. The truth is, every product works differently. It depends on a few different factors, including what the active ingredients are, what their concentration is, and how you use the product.
Generally, you can classify skin lightening creams into three groups.
The first group is ineffective treatments. There are, unfortunately, a lot of snake oil and other fraudster salesmen in the cosmetics industry. Since cosmetics are lightly regulated, there are all manner of people out there willing to make claims about anything, even if their product has few or no active ingredients.
These treatments, well, they don't work. Oftentimes, they're something simple like a moisturizer packed in a box claiming to be a skin lightening treatment. You can use it for months or years, following all of the instructions, and never see a difference.
The second group are the slow treatments. These are the most common. You'll find them all over the place, in various cosmetic stores, on pharmacy shelves, and available online. They have a wide range of possible ingredients, and they work, but they take a while to work.
The primary factor here is that these treatments don't target melanin directly. Rather, they target the cells that produce melanin deep in your dermis layer. The creams penetrate deeply and destroy the cells responsible for producing melanin.
The trouble is, your skin isn't clear and doesn't reflect changes immediately. You might have heard that your skin refreshes itself over time; that's true. Your outer layers of skin are constantly shedding while your inner layers of skin grow, replacing the skin that dies and flakes away.
This process takes time. The skin cycle is different for everyone, but a general average is around four weeks for the inner layers of skin to make it to the surface.
This means that any changes done to the inner core of your skin – such as breaking down melanistic cells – take around four weeks at minimum to show themselves. After around four weeks, you'll start to see results, and it may take longer for full results to show.
The third group of skin lightening cosmetics are the fast treatments. These treatments have higher concentrations of their active ingredients. They're also more likely to be synthetic chemicals rather than natural ingredients. Skin lightening treatments that aren't creams, like laser treatments, also fall into this category.
These treatments can begin working almost immediately. Some of the most effective creams can show results in as little as seven days. The trick is, they do this by attacking melanin directly, and not just the cells that produce it.
So, there you have it; skin lightening creams can take anywhere from a week to four weeks to start showing results, and some undefined duration after that before they reach peak effectiveness.
What Affects How Fast a Skin Lightening Cream Works?
What has an impact on how long it takes for a skin lightening cream to work? Several factors.
First up, the active ingredient is critical. Some ingredients can be effective at bleaching the surface of your skin, while others target deep down and cause more lasting effects. Some treatments are very effective, while others are largely ineffective. Obviously, a skin cream that doesn't have a relevant active ingredient isn't going to do anything.
Secondly, the concentration of the active ingredient affects the results as well. A lower concentration will work more slowly, if it's even enough to penetrate the skin barrier to have an impact in the first place. Higher concentrations work faster and can be a more abrupt shift. On the other hand, higher concentrations can also do more damage along the way. More on that later.
Hydroquinone, one of the most common skin lightening ingredients, is regulated by the FDA. You can get up to 2% concentrations over the counter, and if you have a dedicated reason from a dermatologist, they can prescribe up to a 6% concentration. A little goes a long way, and those 6% concentrated skin creams are very intense.
Third, the instructions on how to use the cream can impact its speed as well. If you're meant to apply the cream and then wash it off quickly, it will only do a little bit to lighten your skin. On the other hand, if you apply it and leave it on for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more? It's going to have more time to work, more deeply, and will thus work faster.
Fourth is whether or not any additional treatments used can affect its speed. A skin cream coupled with laser therapy can have a near-immediate impact, and will have longer-lasting effects. Of course, the downside to this option is that it's more painful and damaging to your skin. Isn't that always how it goes?
Can You Make a Skin Lightening Cream Work Faster?
Sometimes, you might not want to wait for four weeks or more for your complexion to lighten up. Can you enhance the speed of a skin cream, or are you just stuck with what you've got?
Unfortunately, not really. If you get a prescription for a stronger cream, or if you use a laser treatment alongside your cream, it will work faster. However, there's a cap to how fast it can work, and the faster it goes, the more damage it can do to your skin beyond just lightening it up.
There are a few ways you can help keep the results going and prevent your skin from darkening back up too soon, however.
- Get enough exercise. Your skin needs blood flow to heal and stay healthy, especially after the damage of a skin lightening cream, so do a light workout after using it.
- Drink enough water. Just like the above, your skin needs to heal, and water is absolutely essential to that process.
- Take a skin-healthy vitamin mix. Vitamins A, E, and C are all good for skin, so make sure you're getting enough of them. Don't take too much vitamin A, though, as it can impact your hair.
- Avoid smoking and drinking. Both of these do serious damage to your body, including your skin. If you've ever wondered why chronic drinkers have red and blotchy faces, this is why.
None of these habits really speed up a skin lightening cream, but they can help make it a little more effective and a little longer lasting.
Are There Risks to Skin Lightening?
Unfortunately, skin lightening products aren't always safe to use. There are several core risks you face when using such a product.
The first and foremost risk is that you can end up much more easily sunburned or tanned, which undoes all of your work lightening your skin. Melanin is protective. By removing the melanin, you leave yourself more vulnerable to sun damage, including the damage it can do to collagen, resulting in premature wrinkles. Plus, you may tan more easily, darkening your complexion.
This isn't always a bad thing; if you're trying to address a few spots and even out your complexion, this is fine. On the other hand, if you're trying to lighten your whole complexion overall, you don't want to tan it right back.
You can combat this through a combination of avoiding sunlight and wearing sunscreen when you go out. Many skin lightening creams include at least some element of SPF protection specifically to help avoid this issue, as well. We recommend a strong sunblock when you have to go out in the sun at all. Of course, we recommend sunblock for pretty much everyone – it can help protect against UV damage causing wrinkles, and it can help prevent developing skin cancers.
Another risk is something we already touched on: it can damage collagen as well. Since you're breaking down skin cells using a skin lightening cream, some collateral damage will happen. The effects aren't immediate or substantial, at least not right away. What might happen, though, is that you could develop wrinkles earlier than you otherwise would. Unfortunately, there are very few long-term studies into the use of skin lightening creams and their impact on collagen production, so there's not much scientific literature to cite here.
One of the most dangerous risks is mercury poisoning. Some skin lightening creams use active ingredients that are based in mercury, which is a toxic heavy metal. Mercury shows up in a lot of different places, including fish, so it's pretty much impossible to avoid it entirely. However, skin lightening cream directly applies it to your skin, meaning you don't have a chance for your body to process and get rid of it like you do via digestion.
Luckily, this one is easily avoided if you just stay away from skin creams that include mercury-based ingredients. You'll have to be diligent about reading labels; however, again, the lack of regulation makes this difficult.
Thankfully, the FDA does regulate and prohibit the use of mercury compounds. If you're buying domestically produced and sold products, you won't have to worry too much. You should still check and verify, but you don't have to navigate a minefield. On the other hand, if you're importing products, pay special attention.
The final risk is the same as you get with any skincare product: the risk of allergic reactions. Everyone is different and reacts differently to different substances. It's entirely possible to be allergic or sensitive to an ingredient in a skin lightening cream, which can leave your skin red, puffy, or even worse than it started out. That's why we always recommend testing any skin product on a small, out-of-the-way patch before applying it across your whole face or body. The inside of the wrist is a great place for this test; it's sensitive, but out of the way.
Your Skin Stories
Do you use a skin lightening cream? Have you found a routine that helps brighten your complexion without any irritation, redness, or damage? Let us know all about it in the comments section down below. Additionally, have you checked out our skin lightening cream, in particular? If so, what were your thoughts on it? Did it perform to your expectations? We'd love to hear what you think about it and would especially love to know if you're getting value out of the things we sell.