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Poison Products: FDA Warns Against Chemical Skin Lighteners

Age spots, sun damage, uneven skin tone — we’d all like to erase them, but the FDA is warning users to avoid some over-the-counter skin lighteners. Why? Because some of the ingredients can do long-term harm.

In a notice to consumers, the Food and Drug Administration posted the following alert on its webpage, Skin Facts! What You Need to Know About Skin Lightening Products. It reads:

“The FDA’s Skin Facts! Initiative alerts consumers of potentially harmful over-the-counter (OTC) skin products containing hydroquinone or mercury. These products are sometimes called skin lightening products and are not FDA approved for over-the-counter sale.”

Mercury poses serious health risks in even small amounts. It is highly toxic and can damage the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Mercury may be listed as mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio, or Hg.

Dermatologists may safely prescribe hydroquinone-based creams to help with hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, but it should only be used with a prescription. The FDA reports incidents of serious side effects including rashes, swelling in the face, and skin discoloration which may be permanent (which is why it requires medical supervision).

The FDA banned hydroquinone in over-the-counter products in 2020 and ordered removal of the ingredient from shelves, but many creams that contain it remain on the market, both online and in stores. Along with this consumer alert, the agency issued formal warning letters to 12 companies, ordering them to immediately correct their violations. The companies were ordered to pull the products and discontinue sales; they were also given 15 days to report their compliance.

In the cosmetic world, skin lighteners are blowing up in popularity. Used for brightening the skin and fading discoloration, products that use hydroquinone are often targeted at people of color who may feel pressure to lighten their skin, according to experts. The products are often found in ethnic stores and promoted online within platforms like TikTok and YouTube.

But if skin lightening is important to you, there are many options that are considered safe and effective. Some of these products target skin turnover with ingredients that exfoliate including glycolic acid. Vitamin C is considered a safe bleaching agent along with retinol. Kojic acid, a by-product of malted rice (used to make sake/rice wine), is an all-natural lightening and brightening skincare active, as well.

There’s also professional options available. If it’s fading sun damage, discoloration from acne, or age spots that are bothering you, aestheticians may recommend medi-spa services such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion, micro needling or laser treatments.

The best way to avoid skin damage, though, is to take prevention seriously. Dermatologists will point to daily use of sunscreen to prevent environmental damage and premature aging, which would then eliminate the need for skin bleaching.

The takeaway is to be an informed consumer. Flawless, luminous skin is great, but do your homework. Check labels carefully, and avoid products that contain hydroquinone or mercury. Illegal products may be inaccurately labeled or written in another language. If you have skincare questions or concerns, go to a pro who will help you safely put your best face forward!

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