Many people in the United States who use skin-lightening products don’t check with their doctors beforehand, and most don’t know they may contain hydroquinone, mercury, steroids, or other harmful chemicals, a recent cross-sectional survey suggests.
Skin lightening – which uses chemicals to lighten dark areas of skin or to generally lighten skin tone – poses a health risk from potentially unsafe formulations, the authors write in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.
Skin lightening is “influenced by colorism, the system of inequality that affords opportunities and privileges to lighter-skinned individuals across racial/ethnic groups,” they add. “Women, in particular, are vulnerable as media and popular culture propagate beauty standards that lighter skin can elevate physical appearance and social acceptance.”
Dr Roopal Kundu
“It is important to recognize that the primary motivator for skin lightening is most often dermatological disease but that, less frequently, it can be colorism,” senior study author Roopal V. Kundu, MD, professor of dermatology and founding director of the Northwestern Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair at Northwestern University, Chicago, said in an email interview.
Skin lightening is a growing, multibillion-dollar, largely unregulated, global industry. Rates have been estimated at 27% in South Africa, 40% in China and South Korea, 77% in Nigeria, but U.S. rates are unknown.
To investigate skin-lightening habits and the role colorism plays in skin-lightening practices in the United States, Dr. Kundu and her colleagues sent an online survey to 578 adults with darker skin who participated in ResearchMatch, a national health registry supported by the National Institutes of Health that connects volunteers with research studies they choose to take part in.
Of the 455 people who completed the 19-item anonymous questionnaire, 238 (52.3%) identified as Black or African American, 83 (18.2%) as Asian, 84 (18.5%) as multiracial, 31 (6.8%) as Hispanic, 14 (3.1%) as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 5 (1.1%) as other. Overall, 364 (80.0%) were women.
The survey asked about demographics, colorism attitudes, skin tone satisfaction, and skin-lightening product use. To assess colorism attitudes, the researchers asked respondents to rate six colorism statements on a Likert scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The statements included “Lighter skin tone increases one’s self-esteem,” and “Lighter skin tone increases one’s chance of having a romantic relationship or getting married.” The researchers also asked them to rate their skin satisfaction levels on a Likert scale from 1 (very unsatisfied) to 5 (very satisfied).
Used mostly to treat skin conditions
Despite a lack of medical input, about three-quarters of people who used skin-lightening products reported using them for medical conditions, and around one-quarter used them for general lightening, the researchers report.
Of all respondents, 97 (21.3%) reported using skin-lightening agents. Of them, 71 (73.2%) used them to treat a skin condition such as acne, melasma, or postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, and 26 (26.8% of skin-lightening product users; 5.7% of all respondents) used them for generalized skin lightening.
The 97 users mostly obtained skin-lightening products from chain pharmacy and grocery stores, and also from community beauty stores, abroad, online, and medical providers, while two made them at home.
Skin-lightening product use did not differ with age, gender, race or ethnicity, education level, or immigration status.
Only 22 (22.7%) of the product users consulted a medical provider before using the products, and only 14 (14.4%) received skin-lightening products from medical providers.
In addition, 44 respondents (45.4%) could not identify the active ingredient in their skin-lightening products, but 34 (35.1%) reported using hydroquinone-based products. Other reported active ingredients included ascorbic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, niacinamide, steroids, and mercury.
The face (86 people or 88.7%) and neck (37 or 38.1%) were the most common application sites.
Skin-lightening users were more likely to report that lighter skin was more beautiful and that it increased self-esteem and romantic prospects (P < .001 for all).
Elma Baron, MD, professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, advised doctors to remind patients to consult a dermatologist before they use skin-lightening agents. “A dermatologist can evaluate whether there is a true indication for skin-lightening agents and explain the benefits, risks, and limitations of common skin-lightening formulations.
“When dealing with hyperpigmentation, clinicians should remember that ultraviolet light is a potent stimulus for melanogenesis,” added Dr. Baron by email. She was not involved in the study. “Wearing hats and other sun-protective clothing, using sunscreen, and avoiding sunlight during peak hours must always be emphasized.”
Amy J. McMichael, MD, professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., often sees patients who try products based on persuasive advertising, not scientific benefit, she said by email.
“The findings are important, because many primary care providers and dermatologists do not realize that patients will use skin-lightening agents simply to provide a glow and in an attempt to attain complexion blending,” added Dr. McMichael, also not involved in the study.
She encouraged doctors to understand what motivates their patients to use skin-lightening agents, so they can effectively communicate what works and what does not work for their condition, as well as inform them about potential risks.
Strengths of the study, Dr. McMichael said, are the number of people surveyed and the inclusion of colorism data not typically gathered in studies of skin-lightening product use. Limitations include whether the reported conditions were what people actually had, and that, with over 50% of respondents being Black, the results may not be generalizable to other groups.
“Colorism is complex,” Dr. Kundu noted. “Dermatologists need to recognize how colorism impacts their patients, so they can provide them with culturally mindful care and deter them from using potentially harmful products.”
Illegal products may still be available
Dr. McMichael would like to know how many of these patients used products containing > 4%-strength hydroquinone, because they “can be dangerous, and patients don’t understand how these higher-strength medications can damage the skin.”
“Following the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act of 2020, over-the-counter hydroquinone sales were prohibited in the U.S.,” the authors write. In 2022, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to 12 companies that sold products containing unsafe concentrations of hydroquinone, because of concerns about swelling, rashes, and discoloration. Hydroquinone has also been linked with skin cancer.
“However, this study demonstrates that consumers in the U.S. may still have access to hydroquinone formulations,” the authors caution.
At its Skin Facts! Resources website, the FDA warns about potentially harmful over-the-counter skin-lightening products containing hydroquinone or mercury and recommends using only prescribed products. The information site was created by the FDA Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
The study authors, Dr. Baron, and Dr. McMichael report no relevant financial relationships. The study did not receive external funding. All experts commented by email.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.