Adaku Efuribe
7 min readJun 10, 2020


ADAKU EFURIBE : The shocking Truth about Bleaching, Whitening and Toning Products


Due to popular demand, I would like to discuss the chemical ingredients found in some bleaching, toning and whitening products. Over the course of my advocacy project for better healthcare systems and self care, I have received a lot of questions about this, which has prompted the need for this article.

I must say the motive for discussion is non judgemental, I just want to create awareness and encourage people to be body vigilant and practice self care.

For this article exclusions include the use of skin lightening treatments under the care of a dermatologist or doctor for skin conditions like hyper-pigmentation etc

I conducted a mini poll on social media recently, I asked a question-Do you think products applied on the skin get absorbed into the blood stream, 80% of the people that responded said yes, 10% said No and another 10% said Not sure.

Well evidence has shown that products applied on the skin in the form of creams, lotions, patches can get absorbed into the skin, as the skin layer is embedded with blood vessels as well, hence the motive behind the use of medicated skin patches, for drug delivery systems.

So let’s understand the makeup of the human skin, ‘The skin is the largest organ of the body, with a total area of about 20 square feet. The skin protects us from microbes and the elements, helps regulate body temperature, and permits the sensations of touch, heat, and cold

Skin has three layers

Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis, also constitutes- hair follicles, sweat glands, fat connective tissues and blood vessels.

•The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone.

•The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands.

•The deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) is made of fat and connective tissue.

The skin’s color is created by special cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin. Melanocytes are located in the epidermis’


What determines your skin colour?

‘The colour of the skin is determined by a person’s genetic make-up, and it involves the pigment melanin. Melanin is made by special cells called melanocytes which can be found in certain layers of the skin. Melanin production is a complex process. The amount of melanin produced, the type of melanin formed and how it is distributed throughout the skin determines the skin’s colour. Melanin is also the pigment responsible for the colour of hair’.

According to the London Trading standards, ‘The following ingredients found in some skin lightening products have been proven to be harmful to health and cause permanent skin damage:

Harmful Ingredients — most common ones are

· Hydroquinone

· Mercury

· Steriods

Others are –Korjic acid


Hydroquinone is a deritivative of Benzene and has been found listed by alternative names in some ingredients lists (for example 1, 4-Dihydroxybenzene).

Hydroquinone inhibits production of the pigment melanin which gives skin its colour. However melanin is vital to protect the skin against UV radiation so your body will over compensate by producing more melanin. This results in a darker patchier appearance developing; it damages the elastin strands in skin causing premature aging and weakening of the skin; it can cause neuropathy (a disease of the nervous system) and it can damage your liver. It also increases the risk of skin cancer from UV radiation. It has been illegal across the EU since 2001 to sell products with


Mercury is toxic and accumulates in the body, damaging the kidneys, liver and brain, causing a host of serious and potentially fatal health problems. It can also cause foetal abnormalities if used in pregnancy. Mercury has been banned from consumer cosmetic products since 1996.


Steroids (topical corticosteroids) such as clobetasol propionate and betamethasone dipropionate should only be used under medical supervision. They are prohibited in cosmetic products. Misuse can cause skin thinning, stretch marks, bruising and broken veins. Eczema, psoriasis and acne can all flare up and there is an increased risk of skin infection, sores and boils. Prolonged use can affect the release of hormones that control and stabilise vital functions with very serious or life threatening consequences’.


Side Effects/Adverse Effects of Skin lightening [NHS Choices]

Possible side effects:

•skin irritation and inflammation (redness and swelling)

•a burning or stinging sensation

•itchy and flaky skin

What could go wrong?

Possible risks of creams containing hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury include:

•skin turning dark or too light

•thinning of the skin

•visible blood vessels in the skin


•kidney, liver or nerve damage

•abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)


If you are in doubt about any products you are using on your skin, a good place to start is to double-check if the product has been approved by the appropriate regulatory agencies in your country.

Approved products fit for human use should be registered, also be mindful of using products that the manufacturers do not list all the ingredients.

Analysis by the agencies could help reveal the actual ingredients contained in those products

Below are examples of regulatory agencies for different countries:

· UK- MHRA- Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency

· USA- FDA-Food and Drug administration

· Nigeria- NAFDAC- National agency for food ,drug administration and control

Research Extracts:

According to the World Health Organization( WHO-PREVENTING DISEASE THROUGH HEALTHY ENVIRONMENTS, MERCURY IN SKIN LIGHTENING PRODUCTS), ‘In Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis.

The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage.

Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.

One study indicated a large proportion of nephrotic syndrome among African women using ammoniated mercuric chloride–containing skin lightening creams for periods ranging from one month to three years. Over three quarters of the women who stopped using the creams went into remission. Mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into wastewater. The mercury then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can later result in neurodevelopmental deficits in the children.’


Another research by Eric Selorm Agorku et al: (Mercury and hydroquinone content of skin toning soaps, and the potential risks to the health of Ghanaian women Published online 2016 Mar 11)

‘In this study, sixty-two (62) skin-lightening creams and soaps were analyzed for total mercury and hydroquinone levels.

Hydroquinone is a potential carcinogenic ingredient used in skin lightening and treatment of hyper-pigmentation (Joseph et al. 1998). Hydroquinone does not actually bleach the skin but rather, a strong inhibitor of melanin production (Yoshimura et al. 2001). Hydroquinone used for topical application is known to cause serious health hazards when used excessively (Hutson et al. 1999). Hydroquinone toxicity can lead to severe side effects such as kidney and liver malfunction, blood poisoning, nausea, abdominal pains, convulsion and even coma. Animal test on rats, mice
and rabbits showed that hydroquinone can cause acute toxicity (Aldrich 1990).

Mercury is a toxic metal but found usefulness in many cosmetic preparations targeted at skin lightening by suppression of melanin production by the skin (Bourgeosis et al. 1986).

Cosmetic products containing mercury in the form of inorganic mercury are mainly used by dark skinned people mostly in developing countries (Barr et al. 1973). Mercury is a volatile element and is harmful to the skin when used in an effort to lighten the skin.

However, chronic exposure of the body to mercury at very low concentration can cause long-lasting neurological and kidney impairment (Hutson et al. 1999). Mercury in bleaching preparations can be absorbed through the skin and accumulates in body organs giving rise to severe toxicity (Sah 2012).

A study conducted on Tanzanian gold miners who use mercury for amalgamation and people not engaged in gold mining activities revealed that the mercury found in their blood and urine was derived from cosmetic soaps and creams containing mercury (Kahatano et al. 1998). Glahder and Appell (1999) also reported high levels of mercury in imported soaps and creams bought in Tanzanian shops.

An investigation of Kenyan women with damaged kidney also revealed that they suffered severely from higher incidence of nephritic syndrome, which was attributed to the use of creams containing mercury (Barr et al. 1973).

The researcher concluded that — Though the samples analysed in this study do not contain high levels of total mercury and hydroquinone, their continuous use may pose health threat since hydroquinone and mercury can accumulate in the liver and kidneys which can cause damage to these organs’.



This article is not aimed at influencing your decision to use certain products on your skin, Discussion was borne out of the desire to educate and create some form of awareness on the effects of certain chemical substances when applied on the skin.

If you are concerned about any chemical ingredient or products you apply on the skin, please speak to your local pharmacist or see your doctor.

I would advise you to always seek medical advice, weigh the risk benefit ratio, report all skin problems to your pharmacist or doctor, check with the regulatory agencies in your country to ensure products you use on your skin are safe, approved and registered.

Your skin is a very important organ in your body, look after it and be body vigilant.

Article by Adaku Efuribe

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Adaku Efuribe

Forbes Ignite Featured- Creates Social Impact & Sustainability | Health Promotion Ambassador |UN SDGs Advocate