There is a big difference between seeking a glowing, healthy and even-toned skin and an unhealthy fixation on becoming light-skinned by using harmful skin products and chemicals. The former comes from a place of ‘wholeness’ while the latter often stems from a deep-seated unhealthy mental state like a sense of ‘insecurity’, ‘unworthiness’, low self-esteem. Skin lightening is also an addiction!
Skin lightening goes back to Elizabethan times, when pale skin was seen as a sign of beauty and social standing. Pale skin meant the individual was privileged and wasn’t exposed to the sun by working on the fields.
Various whitening creams and powders containing mercury were applied on the face to look pale or white. However as the poisonous effects of mercury and lead became known their use was reduced. This practice was also common in Asia and in the Roman empire.
Nowadays skin lightening or bleaching is used globally for various medical and cosmetic reasons. An estimate of 27% of women world-wide use skin bleaching creams. In some countries it is an alarming number of up to 70% like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Africa and Ivory Coast.
Medical Use of Skin Bleaching
Medical indications for skin lightening include;
- hyper-pigmentation (due to sun damage, skin irritation, hormonal imbalances, pregnancy, age or birth control pills) and
- various pigmentation anomalies.
Creams prescribed are usually based on hydroquinone, steroids or resorcinolic acid. Laser therapy is a new option too.
What exactly happens to your skin when you bleach or lighten it
Melanin is a brown pigment in the skin which helps protect it from ultraviolet sun rays and their dangers like skin cancer.
What are the dangers of skin bleaching or skin lightening products
Many commercially sold products are chemical-based toxic mixtures of hydroquinone, steroids and mercury. These substances pose health threats when used over a long period of time. They can produce adverse side effects and serious health concerns including;
- premature aging of the skin,
- loss of skin firmness,
- skin diseases,
- malfunctions of the nervous system and internal organs.
Latest trends include oral and intravenous treatment with glutathione which may cause damage to the liver. All pigment-reducing complexes make the skin susceptible for damages caused by ultraviolet rays especially skin cancer.
Let’s take a look at the main chemicals used in these creams and their dangers:
Hydroquinone [C6H4(OH)2] is a toxic chemical that is used in manufacturing rubber and in black and white film processing.
- It is toxic to cells, causes mutations and cancer.
- Reports say hydroquinone could cause or worsen thyroid disorders, liver disease and adrenal dysfunction.
- Causes skin rashes, burning skin irritation, excessive redness and a dryness or cracking of the skin.
- If used for extended periods of time, hydroquinone can sometimes induce a condition known as “ochronosis.”
Ochronosis is a blue-black darkening of the skin due to deposits of yellow-blue banana shaped pigments in the dermis. This condition is very hard to treat and treatment may require laser or surgical peeling. It is one of the main reasons for the ban of bleaching creams in many African countries.
The combination of hydroquinone and the sun is a bad one. Increased risk of ochronosis and other side effects have been linked to excess sun exposure while using hydroquinone.
Hydroquinone has been banned for sale as a skin lightener in Europe, Japan, and Australia. Currently skin-lightening products that contain 2 % hydroquinone can be sold over-the-counter in the USA. Products that contain up to 4 % hydroquinone can be obtained by prescription from a physician in many countries.
As an active ingredient mercury is effective against dark spots but its effect is reversible.
Mercury is a toxic chemical that is readily absorbed into the body but it is not easily removed. Over time mercury can accumulate in the body and cause mercury poisoning not only to users but also to others in their households.
- skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring.
- The World Health Organization (1) advises that using mercury on a long-term basis can damage the kidneys and the nervous system.
- Other reports have suggested that the metal can cause lower cognitive functioning, headaches, fatigue, hand tremors, depression,psychosis and other symptoms in users.
- It can also interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children.
Although steroids can be useful in treating inflammation of the skin caused by diseases such as eczema, psoriasis or dermatitis. Steroids are rightfully prescribed under the supervision of a skin specialist and the usage is generally minimized to a few short weeks. They were never intended for skin lightening use.
- Steroids slow down the skin’s natural cell renewal and causes the outer skin layer to become thinner and many people complain of the appearance of green veins in the skin.
- The thinning effect on the skin can increase the risk of physical damage to the skin.
- The skin can become more susceptible to chemical and environmental factors and there will be an increased risk of sun damage and additional pigmentation problems.
- The high doses of steroids found in the illegal skin whitening creams can also interfere with the body’s hormone levels and, in extreme cases, can result in disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome which affects the adrenal gland or cause and enhance diabetes.
- Cushing’s syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms due to prolonged exposure to cortisol. Signs and symptoms may include: high blood pressure, abdominal obesity but with thin arms and legs, reddish stretch marks, a round red face, a fat lump between the shoulders, weak muscles, weak bones, acne, and fragile skin that heals poorly. Women may have more hair and irregular menstruation. Occasionally there may be changes in mood, headaches, and a chronic feeling of tiredness.
- Steroids make the skin susceptible to fungal infection
- Thinning of the skin removes the protective layer of the skin from odor
Glutathione is widely used either as pills or as injections to lighten the skin and slow down skin aging.
The side effects of glutathione have not been widely researched. However a few studies warn against possible liver damage caused by glutathione.
What can be done differently
- Read the label of any skin lightening creams you use to make sure they do not contain hydroquinone, hydrochinon, mercury, steroids and other harmful chemicals. Products containing mercury will have the words “mercury,” “mercurous chloride”, “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “calomel.” If there is no label or list of ingredients do not use that product.
- If discolorations or hyperpigmentation must be treated, consider natural alternatives for skin lightening which are non-toxic and do not carry the risk of serious side effects. Examples are
- Kojic acid
- Alpha arbutin
- Beta arbutin. This is known to come from hydroquinone but does not have the same side effects. It is therefore much safer to use this.
- Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
- Glycolic acid
- Lemon juice
- Ascorbic acid ( Vitamin C )
- Lactic acid
- Emblica. Emblica is one of the natural skin bleaching agents that should be used in moderation
- Use sunscreen in combination with products based on hydroquinone. Sometimes in hot tropical climates, even sunscreens do not offer enough protection.
- Even prescribed skin lightening products are not meant to be used 365 days a year. Skin lightening should be done in circles with breaks in-between.
1 WHO.Mercury in skin lightening products http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf