People around the world have concerns over their skin color. It's not just issues of racism; cosmetic blemishes mar the surface of the skin for a wide variety of reasons. You might have scars or stretch marks. You might have an uneven and unsightly tan. You might have a skin condition like rosacea or vitiligo. It doesn't really matter what your race is, what your natural skin color is, or why you want to pursue skin lightening.
Skin whitening and skin bleaching creams are the solutions to many of these problems. While they won't cure an underlying disease like vitiligo, and they can't actually get rid of scars, they can lighten the darker patches of your skin to make blemishes much less visible. If you're not a fan of makeup or you want to lighten an unsightly scar, a skin whitening cream is usually the way to go.
A question many people ask reflects a common concern. Are these creams permanent? After all, permanent skin treatments are not uncommon. Scars are permanent. Many conditions like vitiligo are permanent. Tattoos are permanent. Why not something that bleaches your skin? Let's discuss.
How Skin Whitening Creams Work
Skin gets its color primarily from a pigment called melanin, which is produced by melanocytes, special cells in the skin that exist solely to produce that color. Melanocytes are actually found throughout the body, in the deepest layers of the epidermis, in the inner ear, in the middle of the eye, and even in the heart and in your bones.
Melanin is not solely there to color your skin. It actually plays two important roles in the body. First and foremost, it serves as a sort of UV protection and can help resist sun damage. This is why, geographically, people originating in areas with more sunshine and closer to the equator have darker skin, and people residing further away from the equator have lighter skin. When you live in a place with less sunlight, your skin doesn't need as much protection, evolutionarily speaking.
The other purpose is related to the immune system. The exact way they function is not well understood, even today, because the immune system is fantastically complex. Feel free to read more about it here; it's not our primary concern today.
Skin whitening creams work using a topical chemical. There are several different chemicals that might be used, but the most common of them is called hydroquinone. This chemical penetrates the skin down to the dermis, and it destroys the pigment melanin as well as melanocytes in the skin.
This process takes a while to get going; skin whitening creams can take 2-3 weeks of daily use before they start showing results. It also might not work. Some blemishes are not caused by melanin or a pigment that can be targeted by the chemical, so the cream doesn't affect it.
The Natural Healing of Skin
You might know that your skin is made up of layers. It's more complicated than you might think, so here's a miniature (and very basic) anatomy lesson.
The outer layer of skin is called the epidermis. It's the protective barrier that prevents environmental hazards, toxins, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals from penetrating the skin and reaching your blood. The epidermis is made up of several layers. From the outside in:
- Stratum Corneum: This is the outer layer of harder, dead skin that serves as "armor" for the skin beneath.
- Stratum Lucidum: This is the thicker skin that appears on hands and feet and other areas that need reinforcing.
- Stratum Granulosum: This is a healthy living layer of skin that produces the keratinocytes that produce the Stratum Corneum.
- Stratum Spinosum: This is an inner layer of the epidermis that helps fight off disease and infection.
- Stratum Basale: This is the inner layer of the epidermis and is responsible for creating all of the other layers, pushing them upwards and outwards. It's also where melanocytes live and generate melanin.
Beneath this is the dermis, which is a permanent layer of skin. When you get a tattoo, the needles deposit ink in the dermis. Tattoos are permanent because the dermis doesn't "turn over" or refresh itself the way the epidermis does.
The dermis is also where many of your skin's primary functions reside. It's where hair follicles are rooted. It's where sweat glands rest to provide their cooling and detoxification functions. It's where collagen and elastin form a scaffold for supporting your skin and healing wounds.
Apologies to anyone who studies skin for a living; this is vastly simplified and filtered for an untrained audience. If you have any corrections, please leave them in the comments.
Is Skin Bleaching Permanent?
As you can see, the melanocytes and melanin are part of the layer of skin that is constantly refreshing itself.
Think of it like a ream of paper, where the top layer of paper periodically falls off and the bottom layer of paper has more added to it.
If you spill ink on the top layer of paper, it will stain that piece of paper. If it's a sufficient amount and quality of ink, it can soak through the paper to stain the layers beneath.
However, when the top layer of paper is removed, the top layer of stain is removed as well. The stain on the layer beneath it is likely much smaller because the ink didn't penetrate quite as much at that layer.
Another amount of time passes and another layer of paper is removed, and the stain is further reduced. Meanwhile, more fresh paper is added to the bottom, so the ream of paper never depletes entirely.
After long enough, enough sheets of paper have been removed that the stain is gone. The paper is back to its original color.
This is basically how skin whitening works. Just invert the metaphor; the paper is black and the stain is bleach. That's how the skin works.
When you use a skin bleaching cream on your skin, it penetrates the epidermis, but cannot get deeper into the dermis. It doesn't need to; the pigment in your skin is contained in the epidermis. Hydroquinone targets the melanin and breaks it down, and targets the melanocytes, and destroys them so that they don't produce more melanin to make up for what was lost.
However, your skin sheds on a 4–6-week cycle. After about a month, your outer layer of skin has shed, the next inner layer has become the outer layer, and so on. Meanwhile, the inner layer has been growing anew.
So, to put it simply: no, skin bleaching is not permanent. At the absolute most, it might last 6-10 months once it has taken full effect. By the time a year has passed, none of the skin that was targeted by the bleaching process remains; it has all been replaced and shed.
How to Whiten Skin Properly
If you want to avoid the risks of skin whitening (detailed below) or are simply worried about how long bleaching lasts, it's important to understand what you're doing to your body.
Skin whitening generally comes in two forms: creams and lasers. Laser treatments can be performed by a dermatologist in their office, and use focused laser beams to destroy melanin. This process needs to be repeated regularly and must be done by a trained practitioner to avoid uneven bleaching or undue damage to the skin. Luckily, you're pretty unlikely to find a home laser kit that does anything more than a flashlight would, so the worst you can do is waste money with DIY or at-home versions.
If you're in the market for a skin whitening cream instead, be sure to check out our Crema Blanqueadora skin cream!
Skin creams are regulated by the FDA. Hydroquinone is generally recognized as safe and effective at 2% or less concentration, which is what most over-the-counter skin bleaching creams contain.
At this low concentration, you will often be applying skin cream to your skin twice a day. This cream penetrates the outer layers of the skin, and the chemical seeks out and destroys melanin. It's a slow process, and the concentrations are low enough that it will take a while to show any major effects.
If the treatment is ineffective, you have two options. You can talk to a dermatologist about laser treatments, which are generally stronger, or you can ask for a prescription.
Prescription skin whitening creams are the same chemical, hydroquinone, but at a higher concentration. Typically, prescription-strength skin whitening creams are 4-6% concentration. This means they are stronger and more effective, but they are also more likely to irritate your skin or cause dermatitis.
As with any prescription-strength medication, make sure you're using the cream as instructed and watch for any side effects. Report issues to your dermatologist to determine what steps to take if you experience issues.
The Risks of Skin Whitening
There are a few risks of skin whitening. Different creams and different treatments have different risks.
The smallest and most minor risk is that the skin whitening process simply doesn't work. Some blemishes are not caused by melanin, and as such, destroying melanin doesn't affect them. Scars, for example, can only be slightly minimized by lightening the skin around them. If you're trying to use a skin whitening cream and it hasn't shown a visible difference in 4-6 weeks, it's unlikely to show any difference at all.
Another risk is dermatitis. Anything that penetrates and damages your skin runs the risk of irritating your skin. Everyone is different, and the effects can vary from person to person. Usually, dermatitis will show up quickly, as your skin and your immune system fight back against whatever is trying to penetrate and damage it. This is a good thing, in that it's your immune response attacking invaders, but it does mean using a skin whitening cream isn't going to work for you.
A very common risk is increased skin sensitivity. Melanin is, as mentioned above, a form of UV protection for the body. By destroying that melanin, you are removing your natural sunblock. This means you can get sunburned more easily – which makes sense; lighter skin burns more readily than darker skin – but also means you might be more at risk for skin cancers. Skin whitening creams do not themselves cause cancer, but they can increase your risk of sun-caused skin cancer.
A relatively rare risk is a more serious side effect, such as mercury poisoning. Skin creams that use hydroquinone do not have this risk. Some skin creams used to use a mercury compound in place of hydroquinone, but this was made illegal in the United States. However, if you buy your skin creams internationally, it's possible that you get a version made with mercury. Even still, you need to use a ton of cream over your whole body every day to get enough mercury penetrating your skin to poison you. It's rare and difficult, but it has happened before.
Finally, if you remember up above, melanocytes are part of the immune system. It's possible that destroying them in your skin can cause issues with your immune response. As far as we know, no study has been performed to test the quality of the immune system on people before and after skin bleaching, but it's plausible. We wouldn't worry about it, though.
So, while the answer was long, the truth is short. Skin bleaching is not a permanent treatment using normal means. The only permanent things that affect your skin affect it at the cellular level, such as vitiligo, or affect layers deeper than the epidermis, like tattoos.
If you want long-term skin whitening, you're left with one option, which is repeated or recurring treatments. You simply need to keep purchasing a supply of skin whitening cream, and applying it on a daily basis, for as long as you want your skin to be lighter. If using laser treatment, you'll need to visit the dermatologist regularly.
We're not ruling out that science may someday come up with a treatment for long-term skin whitening, but for the moment, no such treatment exists. On the plus side, this means that if you change your mind and want to stop treatments, your skin will eventually return to normal.