Skin lightening

Skin lightening, or skin bleaching, is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone.

It's usually used to improve the appearance of blemishes such as birthmarks and dark patches (melasma).

Skin-lightening procedures work by reducing the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour and helps protect it from the sun.

The main techniques used to lighten the skin include:

Trying a skin-lightening procedure is a major decision. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and the results cannot be guaranteed.

If you're thinking of going ahead, be absolutely sure about your reasons for wanting to try it and do not rush into it.

It's a good idea to discuss your plans with a GP first. They might talk to you about your reasons for wanting to lighten your skin, and there might be a medical reason why the procedure is not appropriate for you.

Skin-lightening techniques can result in serious side effects and complications. People with dark skin tones are particularly at risk of these problems.

Skin-lightening creams

Prescription skin-lightening creams

Powerful skin-lightening creams are available on prescription from a doctor. These usually contain one or both of the following medicines:

Skin-lightening creams you can buy without a prescription

Many alternative skin-lightening products are available to buy online or in shops or pharmacies without a prescription.

Make sure you check the ingredients of any product before you buy it. Avoid it if hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury are listed in the ingredients, or if the product does not list the ingredients.

Creams that contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury, which have not been prescribed by a doctor, are banned in the UK because they can cause serious side effects if used incorrectly.

Many skin-lightening creams containing natural ingredients are also available. These are legal and unlikely to be harmful, but there's no guarantee they work.

How to use skin-lightening creams

Your doctor will advise you how to use your skin-lightening cream.

You'll usually be advised to:

Most people will need to continue the treatment for around 3 or 4 months. Your doctor may recommend stopping treatment after this time, or only using it very occasionally.

Possible side effects

Side effects of skin-lightening creams can include:

What could go wrong

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

If you're prescribed skin-lightening cream by a doctor, they should tell you about the potential risks and how common these are.

What to do if you have problems

If you get side effects while using a prescribed skin-lightening cream, contact a doctor for advice.

If you have any severe symptoms that need urgent medical attention, such as a nasty rash, swelling or increasing pain, go to your local accident and emergency (A&E).

Laser skin lightening

A laser can also be used to lighten blemishes or dark patches of skin. This works by either removing the outer layer of skin or damaging the cells that produce melanin.

Laser skin lightening may work for some people, while for others it may not have any effect, or the skin lightening may only be temporary.


Laser skin lightening is not usually available on the NHS, so you'll usually have to pay for it.

The cost of each session can vary widely across practitioners and is dependent on the size of the area being treated, the extent of the lightening, and the equipment used. Several sessions are often needed to increase the chances of the procedure being effective.

What it involves

Before the procedure starts, a test may be done on a small area of skin to see how it reacts. If you do not have any problems, you'll usually have your first session a few weeks later.

You may get a stinging or pricking sensation during the procedure, so a local anaesthetic cream may be used to numb your skin beforehand.

During a session:

Each session will usually last around 30 minutes to an hour. You can go home when it's finished.


It can take a 1 to 2 weeks for your skin to recover from laser skin lightening. You may want to take a few days off work until your skin's appearance starts to improve.

It is common for skin to be red and swollen for a few days afterwards, and it may be bruised or crusty for 1 to 2 weeks.

Over the next few weeks, your skin should start to fade to a lighter colour. It will be sensitive to the sun for up to 6 months.

To aid your recovery you should:

Side effects to expect

It's common after laser skin lightening to have:

These effects usually pass after 1 to 2 weeks.

What could go wrong

Serious complications of laser treatment are generally uncommon, but can include:

You should be told how likely these complications are, and what could be done about them if they happen.

What to do if you have problems

Cosmetic procedures can sometimes go wrong and the results may not be what you expected.

If you have laser skin lightening and are not happy with the results, or think the procedure was not done properly, you should take up the matter with the hospital or clinic where you were treated.

It is best that you go back to the practitioner who treated you if you have any complications. If this is not possible, you can go to a GP or contact NHS 111.

Page last reviewed: 31 August 2019
Next review due: 31 August 2022