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Skin whitening, also known as skin lightening and skin bleaching, refers to the practice of using chemical substances in an attempt to lighten the skin or provide an even skin color by reducing the melanin concentration in the skin. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proven to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles. This includes mercury compounds which may cause neurological problems and kidney problems.
In a number of African countries, between 25 and 80% of women regularly use skin whitening products. In Asia, this number is around 40%.In India, specifically, over half of skin care products are sold to whiten skin.
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Efforts to lighten the skin date back to at least the 1500s in Asia. While a number of agents—such as kojic acid and alpha hydroxy acid—are allowed in cosmetics in Europe, a number of others such as hydroquinone and tretinoin are not. While some countries do not allow mercury compounds in cosmetics, others still do, and they can be purchased online.
Areas of increased pigmentation such as moles may be depigmented to match the surrounding skin. Effective agents for specific areas include corticosteroids, tretinoin, and hydroquinone. These agents, however, are not allowed in cosmetics in Europe due to concerns of side effects. Attempts to whiten large areas of skin may also be carried out by certain cultures. This may be done for reasons of appearance, politics, or economics.
Many skin whiteners contain a toxic form of mercury as the active ingredient.Their use, however, may harm a person’s health and is illegal in many countries.
Hydroquinone is a commonly used agent in skin whiteners, though the European Union banned it from cosmetics in 2000.It works by decreasing melanin production. Tretinoin, also known as all-trans retinoic acid, may be used to whiten specific areas. It may be used in combination with steroids and hydroquinone.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is also used as a skin bleacher, but its biochemical mechanism is unclear.Side effects may include sun sensitivity, skin redness, thickening, or itching. Low concentrations may be used in cosmetics. Kojic acid has been found to be an effective lightener in some studies, and is also allowed to be used in cosmetics. Side effects, however, include redness and eczema.