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Is Skin Whitening Soap Safe? A Comprehensive Overview

A range of skin lightening and skin whitening products is used to reduce the appearance of dark spots, scars, and other skin blemishes. Skin whitening soap is a well-known skin lightener. However, it may not be the safest or the most effective way to treat a skin condition. Many skin whitening soaps contain unsafe ingredients or achieve their bleaching effect by causing damage to your skin. However, other, more effective skin lightening treatments can be used instead to treat a range of skin conditions.

How Does Skin Whitening Work?

Skin whitening products work by reducing the amount of melanin in your skin. These treatments stop the production of an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is involved in creating the different types of melanin in your skin.1 When melanin is no longer being produced naturally to replace skin cells that slough off, the result is a lighter skin tone.

Melanin is an amino acid derivative that performs several useful functions in your skin. Most importantly, it absorbs ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, preventing it from damaging the DNA in your cells, which can cause cancer.

It also acts as a pigment for your skin, with a higher melanin content resulting in darker skin. Various health conditions can cause an overproduction of melanin in patches of skin, resulting in darker spots or patches.

Skin whitening products can be used to reduce the visible effects of skin problems such as age spots, sun damage, acne scars, and discoloration related to hormone changes.

What is Skin Whitening Soap?

Unlike skin lightening creams designed to be applied topically to specific problem areas, skin whitening soap is designed to wash the entire body and cannot be easily applied only to particular areas such as dark spots and blemishes.

As a result, skin whitening soap has limited use as a treatment for skin conditions that cause dark spots. Additionally, many skin whitening soaps contain ingredients that may be harmful. Skin lightening creams can also contain these ingredients, but they deliver a more limited and controlled dosage as topical products. Exposing your skin to these products for prolonged periods, especially under hot and humid conditions such as when bathing, can make them more dangerous.4

The active ingredients of skin whitening soaps usually include a combination of hydroquinone and various derivatives, retinoids, alpha, and beta hydroxy acids, ascorbic acid, divalent ion chelators, kojic acid, azelaic acid, and mercury derivatives.2 Mercury, in particular, is highly toxic and can cause damage to several major organs with repeated or prolonged exposure, and is also a carcinogen.

What are the Side Effects of Skin Whitening?

Using skin whitening soap can cause rashes, acne, thinning or reddened skin, itching or burning feeling on your skin, and scarring.

Depending on the active ingredients being used, some of the common side effects of skin whitening soaps include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Fatigue

  • Light sensitivity

  • Numbness

  • Neurologic symptoms, including tremors, memory loss, and irritability

  • Kidney failure

  • Lung damage

  • Greater risk of developing skin cancers

  • Premature skin aging

Unregulated skin bleaching treatments can contain dangerously high concentrations of hydroquinone, and topical steroids.3 Applied simultaneously, these two compounds can permanently damage your skin’s ability to produce melanin. Melanin plays a vital role in protecting your skin and deeper tissues from the damaging effects of the sun by absorbing UV rays before they can penetrate deeper into your body. Without it, you will be at increased risk of developing various types of cancer associated with sun damage.

Many of the active ingredients used in skin whitening products can also cause contact dermatitis in some people, especially people who have sensitive skin. Contact dermatitis can cause rashes, itching, redness, dryness, and in severe cases, pain and blisters. Higher concentrations are more likely to provoke these kinds of reactions.

They can also result in permanent discoloration of your skin, leaving you with gray, blue, or purple patches on your skin. Products that do not provide an ingredients list are a major red flag, and along with any unregulated skin-lightening product, they should be avoided.

Skin Whitening Benefits

There are no health benefits associated with skin lightening treatments. In many cases, they can be harmful, and even in the case of treatments that only use safe ingredients, melanin performs vital functions in your skin. Artificially limiting your skin’s ability to produce melanin can make you more susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun, including skin cancer.

However, skin lightening treatments can be used in some cases to reduce the appearance of various skin discolorations, including:

  • Acne

  • Sunspots

  • Age spots

  • Melasma

  • Freckles

  • Hyperpigmentation caused by eczema and psoriasis

  • Stretch marks

Other Ways to Whiten Skin

One of the most common causes of hyperpigmentation is damage from ultraviolet light emitted by the sun. The best way to deal with this is to prevent it from happening in the first place by protecting yourself from the sun.

Staying in the shade and wearing sunscreen on sunny days sounds obvious, but it is important to remember that the amount of UV light you are exposed to does not always correlate to how good the weather is outside. An overcast or even rainy day could still have a high level of UV radiation reaching the ground in some situations. You can use the UV index to get an estimate of how much UV light you will be exposed to. If the UV index is above 3, you should be wearing sunscreen and sticking to the shade.

Various natural extracts can be used to tackle hyperpigmentation. These do not have as instant an effect as skin whitening soaps and skin lightening creams, but they are often much better for your skin and for the rest of your body. These include:

Citrus Extracts

Citrus fruits like oranges and lemons contain large amounts of vitamin C. When applied topically to your skin, vitamin C helps your skin to regulate the overproduction of melanin without causing damage to your cells or their ability to produce melanin. As vitamin C only slows down overactive melanin production, this has the advantage of reducing the appearance of dark spots without lightening the surrounding skin.

Kojic Acid

Kojic acid works as a natural alternative to hydroquinone. It stops an enzyme called tyrosinase from functioning correctly. Tyrosinase is a key compound involved in the production of melanin. It is also an antioxidant and is less harsh on the skin than many other skin-lightening treatments. It does not work selectively like citrus extracts; however, lightening any skin it is applied to. Prolonged use or use of concentrations above 2% could permanently damage your skin’s ability to produce enough melanin to protect you from the Sun. 5

Licorice Extract

The juice from the roots on licorice plants contains a compound called Glabradin. Glabradin absorbs UV light and limits the production of tyrosinase without damaging your skin cells. It also has soothing and anti-inflammatory effects and is often used to treat acne scarring.

Bearberry Extract

The leaves of the bearberry plant contain an astringent called arbutin, which is known for lightening skin. Arbutin is a form of hydroquinone and turns into hydroquinone when it comes into contact with your gut bacteria. Because of this, it carries many of the same health risks of hydroquinone, including the risk of several types of cancer.

Mulberry Extract

Mulberry fruit juice acts as an anti-inflammatory and contains acids that inhibit the production of tyrosinase, reducing the amount of melanin in new skin cells. Overusing mulberry extract or citrus extract can irritate your skin because of their acidic content.


Papaya fruit is a widely used natural skin treatment that is often used as an anti-aging face mask. It contains alpha hydroxyl acids, which can prevent some signs of aging in the skin, such as wrinkles and fine lines. It also contains large amounts of vitamin E and vitamin C, which help rejuvenate your skin by increasing its elasticity and suppressing melanin overproduction.


Skin whitening soaps are not considered safe or effective by the FDA and often contain banned ingredients in many regions. To treat hyperpigmentation caused by various health conditions or scarring, numerous topical treatments are safer and more effective, with less risk of causing permanent damage to your skin if used correctly.

Whether you intend to use over-the-counter or prescription products to treat your dark spots and other skin blemishes, it is always a good idea to visit a dermatologist before beginning any treatment. Not all skin lightening products work on the same types of problems, and some can be harmful or cause negative side effects that outweigh the benefits.

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