Some days ago on Twitter, I saw a tweet posted by a lady who sells natural cosmetic products saying: “It upsets me when clients ask if my products will make them lighter or darker, as if being dark is disgusting”. A couple of days later, I saw the link to an article on Al Jazeera titled “Nigeria’s dangerous skin whitening obsession”. I decided to do some research and write about it. (PS: Skin bleaching, skin whitening and skin lightening are used interchangeably).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. Here are some of the reasons why women choose to lighten their skin:
Women who are light skinned are seen to be more beautiful…..some do it to be able to get rich men or even get good jobs. Office jobs are normally left for pretty and light girls.
Light-skinned women are more attractive to men and are treated better.
I am not seeking to be totally white, I just want to look beautiful.
A commonly shared explanation between ‘light skin’ and ‘beauty’ is that it extends to a range of tangible social and economic benefits, including access to better job opportunities, higher social status, better marriage proposals, and better life circumstances in general. It is sad, but I have actually seen some job ads seeking “tall, light-skinned” women.
Skin bleaching refers to the use of chemical agents to lighten skin color. Some skin-lightening products can be prescribed to treat hyperpigmentation disorders, but are more frequently used intentionally to lighten skin complexion. Skin bleaching products include creams, ointments, soaps, capsules/pills and injections. The most commonly used products contain Hydroquinone, Corticosteroids (steroids) or Mercury.
For the treatment of common skin discoloration issues like hyperpigmentation, (patches of skin darker in color than surrounding skin) and post-inflammatory pigmentation (dark spots that appear due to skin injury or inflammation like acne), dermatologists typically recommend the short-term use of hydroquinone. Hydroquinone basically reduces the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin, hair and eye color. Darkened patches on the skin are usually caused by the overproduction of melanin.
There are some concerns about Hydroquinone, as you probably have heard. It causes damage to the melanocytes (skin cells which produce melanin), which is one of the reasons hydroquinone raises safety concerns. Melanin production is important for the prevention of skin cancers like melanoma. The skin becomes darker in most individuals when exposure to sunlight increases. Also studies have shown that hydroquinone can cause DNA damage, which has raised concerns about cancer.
If you suffer from hyperpigmentation, check with a certified dermatologist for the best solution for you. Based on the research, for treatment of isolated areas of hyperpigmentation (a couple of dark spots here and there), short-term use of hydroquinone followed by the use of sun protection is most effective. Under those use conditions, there appears to be no serious health issues. When Hydroquinone is used in doses higher than 2% or over a long period, you can have some pretty negative, even contradictory results. With higher concentrations, there have been reports of the development of exogenous ochronosis, the darkening of the skin, which is permanent and very resistant to any treatment.
Corticosteroid and steroid creams are prescribed by doctors to treat inflammation from skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis. Many unscrupulous sellers have been selling and marketing steroid creams as skin bleaching creams. This is because one of the known side effects of using steroid creams is the lightening of skin color. These sellers will not list steroids under their ingredients list anywhere on their packaging because the sale of steroid creams for the purpose of skin lightening is illegal. Steroid creams contain powerful ingredients and they come with specific usage instructions when prescribed by doctors because of the potentially serious side effects they can cause. Short courses of steroid creams (fewer than four weeks) are usually safe and usually cause no problems. Problems may develop if these creams are used for long periods.
Corticosteroid creams are almost unrivaled in their ability to quickly lighten skin color. However, its short-term results are just that — short-term. When these creams are discontinued, the skin will usually revert back to its original color eventually. Meanwhile, prolonged use of the creams can lead to devastating skin damage, which is usually irreversible.
Some side effects of long-term regular use of steroid creams include:
- Thinning of the skin
- Excess hair growth
- Stretch marks, bruising, discoloration, or thin spidery blood vessels
Corticosteroids are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream with serious health side effects like:
- Fluid collection in the legs
- High blood pressure
- Bone damage (thinning)
- Adrenal Insufficiency
- Corticosteroids appear in breast milk which can harm new born babies
- Cushing’s syndrome – this is a rare problem caused by high levels of a hormone (chemical messenger) in your blood. Symptoms include fast weight gain, skin thinning and changes to your mood.
Examples of known creams usually used for skin lightening that contain corticosteroids: Tempovate, Topifram, Bio Claire, Dermovate, Movate, Vecuten, Neovate….the list is endless.
Many skin-lightening products contain high levels of highly toxic mercury, which can prove hazardous to your health as it can be absorbed through the skin. Mercury salts, juts like hydroquinone inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in lighter skin. The amount of mercury in a product may be labeled on the packaging or in the ingredient list. Names to look for include Mercury, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, ammoniated mercury, amide chloride of mercury, quicksilver, cinnabaris (mercury sulfide), hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide) or mercury iodide. However, companies selling products that contain mercury do not always list it as an ingredient.
According to research, the health effects of using inorganic mercy contained in skin-lightening products include:
- Kidney damage
- 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 (severe mental disorder and peripheral neuropathy (a result of damage to peripheral nerves)
If you use any type of skin lightening cream, regardless of where you purchased it, there is the possibility it contains mercury. In an earlier study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, investigators evaluated 549 skin-lightening products made in 32 different countries. They were looking for products that had mercury. They discovered that 45% of the products had very high levels of mercury. Public awareness needs to be raised regarding the adverse effects of using these skin-lightening products.
Photo Credit: Everyday Feminism