Many have sung the praises of cold water for the skin. A chilly rinse can help reduce pores, calm itchy skin, and keep in your face’s protective oils, but can it do even more? Can it, for example, whiten skin?
Cold water does not whiten skin. Any whitening effects seen directly after washing the face are caused by blood vessel constriction, which wears off. For skin whitener to work, it must alter genes or create lots of antioxidants, which water can’t.
While cold water may not lighten skin, other substances can, though they are dangerous to use. This article will walk through how skin whitening works and propose several known methods of skin lightening. It will also list some of the benefits of cold water for the skin.
A Quick Disclaimer
People desire to whiten skin for one of two reasons:
- To help with localized damage, such as age spots or hyperpigmentation.
- To lighten naturally dark skin as a whole. This is rather more difficult and presents more dangers.
This article assumes that you don’t plan on bleaching your skin as a whole, and so will focus on methods designed to reduce dark spots. It will also avoid recommending any products considered dangerous by a medical authority or the FDA.
How Does Skin Whitening Work?
To lighten a patch of skin means to reduce the amount of active melanin found in it. This can be done in several ways:
- By inhibiting the activity or the creation of tyrosinase, the enzyme which encourages melanin production
- By encouraging or discouraging melanocyte skin cell turnover
- By preventing the transfer of melanin by melanosomes
- By inhibiting the oxidation of melanin, through reducing reactive oxygen species using antioxidants
Cold water cannot do any of this. If it could, we would have been stripped of all our melanin ages ago. The first three methods require gene alteration to inhibit enzymes, and the last is more easily achieved with exercise.
Benefits of Cold Water for the Skin
Though it cannot whiten skin, cold water still can:
- Reduce pores and puffiness by constricting the blood vessels
- Give your skin a healthy glow by stimulating blood flow
The first point sometimes gets mistaken as whitening, as the blood vessels’ constriction can reduce redness.
What is more significant is what cold water doesn’t do. Rinsing with hot water can lead to:
- Stripping the oil from your skin, drying it out
- Worsening conditions like eczema and acne
- Itchy skin, caused by your mast cells releasing histamines
So, even if cold water can’t whiten your skin, it may be a good idea to use it to wash your face anyway.
Skin Whitening Products (in Order of Safety)
Acids are the backbone of most skincare products. Some acids are also quite helpful in treating hyperpigmentation, used for clearing acne and reducing fine lines. Some standbys include:
- Glycolic acid, like its younger brother mandelic acid, is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA). Its molecules are the smallest known for an AHA, and so it is very effective and can get deep into the skin. Use it with care, though, because it raises sun sensitivity. The Pixi Beauty Skintreats Glow Tonic is easily bought at Target.
- Mandelic acid, such as The Ordinary Mandelic Acid, is highly recommended for dark, sensitive skin. Due to its larger molecules, it does not penetrate too far and irritates the skin less. This prevents rebound pigmentation, which is when resistance to a particular product causes that product to have the opposite effect than desired on your skin.
- Kojic acid, while sometimes irritating, is effective and readily available, like the Evagloss Lightening Serum on Amazon.
- Azelaic acid is wonderfully mild and is sometimes paired with retinoids in skin lighters to reduce inflammation. Try the Ecological Formulas Melazepam Cream, which is good for rosacea.
Retinoids and Vitamin A
Retinoids are, in some ways, the opposite of corticosteroids, which are coming up next. They encourage skin cell renewal while still preventing melanogenesis. They come in two forms:
- Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is the milder variant. Retinol products like the CeraVe Anti-Aging Retinol Serum are available over-the-counter. Most dermatologists suggest trying it before moving on to tretinoin.
- Tretinoin, a prescription antioxidant that also reconfigures how your cells work, leading to thicker skin with less active melanin.
Corticosteroids are used as skin lightening products due to their effectiveness and anti-inflammatory qualities, which mitigate immediate skin irritation.
They work by several methods: first, there is the immediate bleaching due to constriction of the blood vessels. Then they inhibit the production of certain other steroids, reducing the production of the melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH). Finally, they reduce the skin cell renewal rate, which reduces the melanocytes’ activity, which produces melanin.
By reducing the skin cell renewal rate, steroids end up thinning the skin. Other possible side effects include the appearance of stretch marks, higher risk of fungal infection, and folliculitis.
Hydroquinone is one of the most effective skin whiteners. It works by inhibiting tyrosinase production, leading to less melanin produced by the melanocytes.
Do not use any peroxide products if using hydroquinone. This can cause temporary dark stains on the skin.
Mercury works by replacing tyrosinase’s anions, stopping it from encouraging melanin production. Since mercury is poisonous, any product containing more than 1ppm is considered dangerous by the FDA. Avoid mercury products if you can, because some have been found to contain anywhere from 93 to 16,000 ppm of mercury. Look out for words like:
- Mercuric iodide
- Mercury oxide
- Mercurous chloride
- Ethyl mercury
- Phenylmercuric salts
- Ammoniated mercury
- Amide chloride of mercury
- Mercury iodide
There are many suggested at-home methods of skin whitening, but none that could be recommended here. Do not attempt them. The most dangerous include applying lemon juice to the skin, causing photodermatitis, and sensitivity to sunlight.
The best advice there is to stay out of the sun. Like the La Roche-Posay Anthelios, a good sunscreen will help you protect your skin when you go outside.
The Dangers of Skin Whitening
Skin whitening is a complicated process, and all known methods for it come with their downsides, even if most of those downsides are just irritated skin. Despite that, some dangers are more acute than others, and a few should be mentioned here:
- Hydroquinone, the most common whitening agent, is banned in Europe as a suspected carcinogen. Dosages available legally in the US are 2-3%, 4-6% by prescription
- Hydroquinone can also cause an untreatable skin discoloration called exogenous ochronosis. Some mistake it for melasma and try to treat with more hydroquinone, making it worse.
- Any product with mercury must be avoided at all costs. Using mercury can cause mercury poisoning and liver issues.
- Corticosteroids can increase acne, skin infections, and decrease the healing ability of your skin.
- Reducing melanin can increase your risk of sun cancer.
- Repeated use of lighteners on large patches of skin can age skin early.
Cold water cannot whiten your skin because it lacks the in-depth genetic modification or antioxidant abilities necessary for a whitening product. On the other hand, it has significant skin benefits and would be good to implement into your beauty routine anyway.
If you’re considering trying a skin whitener, go for something acid-based first. As scary as acids sound, these products tend to have fewer ill effects than some of the alternatives. Stay away from steroids, mercury, and hydroquinone, and remember to be patient with your skin. However, it’s best if you consult your dermatologist before applying anything on your skin.