How Can I Lighten My Dark Skin?

Find out how the best lightening creams

Portrait of woman with darker skin
Stone / Getty Images

A question I get from both women and men is "how can I lighten my skin safely?" They want to know if skin lighteners (also known as skin brighteners, bleaching creams and skin whiteners) work. And more importantly, they want to know if they are safe.

The market for skin lightening products continues to grow throughout the world, especially in countries where lighter skin is revered. I don't notice it as much in the States (where women love a nice tan), but on trips to India, Japan, Thailand, and Mexico, I found the drugstores are filled with skin creams that are meant to lighten dark skin.

In fact, it's hard to buy a moisturizer in these countries that doesn't market skin lightening capabilities. 

In this FAQ I'll tell you what ingredients to look for in a skin lightening cream, the risks in these products, why they work and how to make your own recipes in your kitchen.

Why are Skin Lighteners Popular?

A growing number of women across the world are using skin lighteners to lighten their naturally dark skin color. Skin lightening creams have been popular in Japan for decades where lighter skin is revered. They remain popular in Asian, Southeast Asian and African countries. The trend is rather new in the United States, where skin brightening creams have become more popular since 2011.

According to the New York Times, products in the US are called "brighteners" and are used for creating a more youthful, dewy look. Other women use these creams use them to fix skin conditions including melasma, spots caused by sun damage and acne scars.

In Asia, the products are marketed as "skin lighteners" and are used to actually lighten skin.

How Do Skin Lightening Creams Work?

Skin lightening creams work by inhibiting the production of melanin in the skin. Darker-skinned people have higher concentrations of this pigment than light-skinned people.

There are a few chemicals that prevent melanin production, but how safe they are is up for debate.

What to Look for in a Whitening Cream

Hydroquinone is the only FDA-approved skin-lightening ingredient in the US and it works by preventing melanin production. How safe it is, however, is up for debate. Hydroquinone has been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice, which led the European Union to ban the ingredient from cosmetics in 2001. The United States, which tends to be less regulated when it comes to some cosmetics, allows it in over-the-counter products, as long as the concentration doesn't exceed 2%. You can find 4% hydroquinone in creams meant to treat skin conditions, but you'll need a doctor's prescription.

Some prescription creams combine hydroquinone with tretoinin (Vitamin A) to combat melasma, a skin darkening condition that can be caused by pregnancy or extended over-exposure to the sun.

Japan and Korea have become trendsetters in the skin whitening industry, marketing non-toxic skin creams that are less harmful, but pricey due to the ingredients.

What to Avoid in a Whitening Cream

You never want to buy a cream that contains mercury as an active ingredient. Mercury is banned in products sold in the US but can be found in some lightening creams outside the US and in bootlegger creams.

While mercury is a known inhibitor of melatonin, the overuse of mercury can result in mercury poisoning.

The Best Skin Whitening Creams

I've researched the best skin whitening creams on the market today. These get great reviews from users and come highly recommended by doctors. They include:

Apply these creams to your skin or brown spots twice daily. You can also buy skin whitening creams from your local pharmacy or drugstore. Just look for "Hydroquinone" on the package. These OTC creams tend to be less irritating and just as effective as the prescription-strength creams such as Obagi Clear, Glyquin, Tri-Luma, and Solaquin, which are made up of 4 percent Hydroquinone.

See a list of the best and worst skin whitening creams on

The Emergence of BB Creams

BB creams are becoming increasingly popular in the US. Popular for years in Korea, they've only emerged as popular skincare products in the US in the past year or so.

BB creams are essentially a 3-shot cocktail: they are tinted moisturizers with a high SPF that also include whitening properties.

See BB Cream: Do You Need to Jump on the Bandwagon?

The Importance of Sunscreen

The best way to keep your dark skin or your age spots from getting darker is to simply keep your skin out of the sun. Wear SPF of at least 50 and wear hats when in the sun. Get your Vitamin D3 levels checked if you're worried that lack of sunlight will hurt your health (it's true, the body needs some UV rays to produce Vitamin D3).

Skin has an amazing way of taking care of itself. You'll lose your tan after awhile, but if those sun spots or aging spots remain after your tan fades, you can treat them with creams. Lasers have also proven effective in diminishing brown spots, but this is the priciest option.

See this list of the best sunscreens on the market.

Natural Recipes You Can Make at Home

Many women swear that basic food items such as lemon, whole milk, and turmeric powder can naturally bleach and lighten skin. Here are some very popular recipes recommended (but not tried, as I'm very pale) to me:

Lemon juice is a natural skin lightener. Used daily or every few days over the course of a few weeks will give you the best results.

  • Recipe 1: Use 1 part lemon juice and one part oil (olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil and almond oil are all good choices). Add a teaspoon of flour to make a paste. Leave the mask on for 10 minutes and then rinse off with lukewarm water.
  • Recipe 2: Use 1 part lemon juice, 1 part honey and a dash of baking soda to make a paste.
  • Recipe 3: Use 1 part lemon juice and 1 part yogurt for a mask.

Southeast Asian and Indian women use turmeric face powders to lighten the skin and brighten the complexion.

See this popular Skin Brightening Turmeric Face Mask.

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