Complications of chronic use of skin lightening cosmetics

Int J Dermatol. 2008 Apr;47(4):344-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-4632.2008.02719.x.


Skin lightening (bleaching) cosmetics and toiletries are widely used in most African countries. The active ingredients in these cosmetic products are hydroquinone, mercury and corticosteroids. Several additives (conconctions) are used to enhance the bleaching effect. Since these products are used for long duration, on a large body surface area, and under hot humid conditions, percutaneous absorption is enhanced. The complications of these products are very serious and are sometimes fatal. Some of these complications are exogenous ochronosis, impaired wound healing and wound dehiscence, the fish odor syndrome, nephropathy, steroid addiction syndrome, predisposition to infections, a broad spectrum of cutaneous and endocrinologic complications of corticosteroids, including suppression of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In this era of easy travels and migration, African patients with these complications can present to physicians anywhere in the world. It is therefore critical for every practicing physician to be aware of these complications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Black People
  • Cosmetics / adverse effects*
  • Cosmetics / chemistry
  • Cushing Syndrome / chemically induced
  • Cushing Syndrome / pathology
  • Dermatologic Agents / adverse effects*
  • Dermatologic Agents / chemistry
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Hydroquinones / adverse effects
  • Male
  • Mercury / adverse effects
  • Nigeria
  • Ochronosis / chemically induced*
  • Ochronosis / pathology
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Skin Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Skin Diseases / pathology
  • Skin Pigmentation / drug effects*


  • Cosmetics
  • Dermatologic Agents
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Hydroquinones
  • Mercury
  • hydroquinone