A fairer and lighter skin has held the mark, as the ultimate standard of beauty for a long time in various parts of the world, with western and Asian countries sitting at the top of this list. Skin lightening which is also the word for skin whitening or bleaching is a term used to describe the practice of using products or procedures to reduce the concentration of melanin present in the skin. This involves the use of creams, pills, soaps, lasers, injectables, and a host of other products to achieve an even-toned or a lighter shade of skin.
The growing desire to alter skin color particularly among women has been ascribed to media bias and social and ethical perceptions of beauty ideals. In a number of Asian countries, fair skin is considered a ticket for marital and career prospects. This includes Asian countries like China, India, Thailand, Korea, and Japan.
The growing multi-billion dollar skin lightening industry has come under heavy criticism a number of times for promoting colorism and social inequality by feeding off the insecurity of dark-skinned people. The use of skin lightening products which often contain toxic ingredients has been linked to a number of adverse side effects. The widespread use in Asian and African countries, in particular, raised the alarm for a growing beauty pandemic that needs to be put in check.
Experts believe that media imagery, social conditioning, and cultural values have pushed a lot of people into the dangerous claws of skin bleaching. People with dark-colored skin often find themselves at the receiving end of veiled societal disdain. In worst-case scenarios, some are denied corporate and economic opportunities because of how they look. Children are also taught from an early age that beauty and societal supremacy is linked to lighter skin color. These and many other reasons are why skin whitening has become a global phenomenon.
SKIN BLEACHING STATISTICS
Although skin lightening is largely practiced all over the world, The World Health Organization reports that in Africa, 25% to 80% of women use skin-lightening products on a regular basis, and 40% of Asian women also patronize the skin fairness industry.
India reportedly has one of the largest global markets for skin whitening products. The skin whitening cream is said to be the most popular skincare product in India, with about 60% of Indian women using it on a daily basis. A skin whitening research paper published in 2018 that explored the use of skin whitening products in the city of Mumbai, India was able to shed more light on this.
Questionnaires were distributed among 1, 992 men and women aged between 16 to 60 years. 37.6% of the study participants reported that they were currently using whitening products, with women reporting more usage. Among this population, 17% reported experiencing adverse side effects, with media propaganda serving as the prompt for use, followed by pressure from family and friends. The study also revealed that men were more likely to capitalize on the belief that lighter skin was more attractive than women. In a nutshell, more than half of the total sample admitted to using skin whitening products at one point in their lifetime.
A survey published in the International Journal of Dermatology reported that 92% of Nigerian men and women who attended the skin clinic in Lasuth Lagos, between February and October 2004 reported using skin altering creams containing hydroquinone and other pigment removing ingredients in the past.
The global industry analysts skin lightening report projects that the skin-lightening industry will grow into a $23 billion industry by 2020. According to another report by statistics MRC, the global skin lightening products market amounted to $4075 million dollars in 2017 and is projected to amount to $8011.17 million by 2026, thereby bringing its growth rate to a GACR of 7.8% within the estimated period.
Indian’s skin lighting market is projected to reach $720 million in 2023. Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream that made its debut in 1975 currently dominates more than 50% of the market. The product is produced by Unilever which is famous for leveraging on colorism and social inequality to promote the cream.
The company first became entangled in a fairness cream controversy in a 1990 ad where it portrayed a heartbroken young woman who runs to her room to cry after hearing her father say “kaash beta hota” which means “if only I had a son”. On getting to her room, she comes upon a fair and lovely ad promoting the benefits of skin fairness. subsequently, a happier and lighter version of the young woman is shown making more money and treating her parents to a dinner outing. This advertisement came under heavy criticism for exploiting the insecurity of Indian women and for attributing career and relationship success to fair skin.
Although the company has long stopped making a brazen show of colorism and patriarchy through the media, their recent ads subtly hint that a lighter looking skin is the gateway to female financial and career success. The ads suggest that with the product, any woman can excel at whatever career choice she chooses. The company has even expanded its market to include the sale of lightening creams to lighten body parts like the vagina and armpit.
HISTORY OF SKIN BLEACHING
Skin lightening has been in existence for decades, dating back to the pre-colonial and colonial era. In history books, skin color enhancement started as early as the victorian era when European women dabbed on toxic arsenic mixtures known as beauty arsenic wafers to achieve a paler looking skin. In the 16th century, women were known to use a poisonous lead mixture called Venetian ceruse to whiten their skin. Side effects associated with this lethal mixture were skin discoloration, inflammation, tooth enamel erosion, and hair loss. As civilization continued to evolve, skin color enhancement options and products became more broad and widespread.
The practice reportedly developed in Asia and Africa due to the influence of colonialism and slavery. A research paper by the American Sociological Society reported that slavery ushered in the white supremacy belief that white-skinned people were more superior to people of African origins in terms of civilization and beauty. If you were privileged to have a lighter shade of skin, you were one step closer to gaining privileges only bestowed to white people such as a recognized social status, and better employment and marital opportunities. Even light-skinned slaves were separated from the darker-skinned ones and allowed to work indoors away from the scorching heat of the sun with high ranking officials.
In India, skin lightening is deeply ingrained in the country’s culture and caste system. Prominent caste members had lighter skin and were often excluded from engaging in manual work. When colonial reign took over, the colonials also had fair skin. India has a long history of colonization and was ruled by the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French nations before gaining independence in 1947.
The origin of skin lightening in India was traced back to these times of colonial rule which attached superiority and higher social standing to white-colored skin than darker ones. The social and economic restrictions and bias that was centered around white and light-colored skins prompted the less privileged and dark minority to bleach their skins.
SKIN LIGHTENING PROCEDURES
Skin lightening procedures are aimed at reducing the amount of melanin present in the skin. Melanin which is produced by melanocytes in the body is responsible for the pigmentation of the skin and it works to protect the skin from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. The techniques used in skin lightening include :
Application of skin color altering creams
Skin bleaching creams, fading creams, or whiteners contain an active ingredient or a combination of different ingredients whose major function is to reduce the concentration of melanin on the area where it is applied. The most popular ingredient used in skin whitening creams is hydroquinone.
The use of hydroquinone in lightening creams in the US is regulated by the FDA due to safety concerns. The regulating body stipulates that over the counter skin lightening creams should not contain more than 2% of the active ingredient, while those given on prescription basis by dermatologists should be within the range of 4% to 6%. Some other ingredients found in skin lighteners include steroids, kojic acid, and retinoic acid.
Prescription skin-lightening creams usually contain a combination of hydroquinone and corticosteroids. It is prescribed for people with skin conditions such as discoloration, acne spots, dermatitis, eczema, hyperpigmentation, pregnancy-induced hyperpigmentation, and allergic reactions. Prescription skin lightening creams are used within recommended doses for a short period of time or until the skin problem has been treated. Abusing these creams can lead to a myriad of health problems.
Over-the-counter skin lightening creams are sold in pharmacies, cosmetic stores, and are often marketed online. They promise to help people with or without skin conditions achieve a desirable and lighter skin tone. Some of these products may be safe for use but a large percentage of them contain toxic ingredients that can pose potential side effects to the user.
Glutathione pills and injections
If you’ve ever tried hitting the search button for skin lightening pills for women or skin lightening pills for black women, you must have come across the wonder antioxidant used for skin whitening purposes called Glutathione. Glutathione is akin to the cool new kid on the block, with so many research articles written to highlight it’s antioxidant benefits which include skin lightening. Glutathione is an antioxidant that is naturally produced by the body with the help of amino acids.
It is also found in foods such as tomatoes, oranges, walnuts, garlic, onions, papayas, squash, avocado, and spinach. As an antioxidant, it functions to eliminate or suppress the negative effects caused by reactive oxygen. It is used under medical circumstances to treat liver disorders and chemotherapy-induced neurotoxicity. In recent times, however, glutathione has expanded its body benefits to include skin whitening. Its purported benefits include; fading blemishes, brightening the skin, achieving an even and blended skin tone. Added benefits of using glutathione include immune system strengthening, high energy levels, and an increased sex drive.
This supposed wonder antioxidant is artificially manufactured in laboratories using glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid and sold in the form of creams, soaps, pills, capsules, and injections. Glutathione pills and injections are the most popular of the group.
The standard dosage for administration is 20-40 MG per kg of body weight to be taken once or twice daily for 3-6 months. It promises noticeable results in as little as a month or six months maximum, depending on how dark the skin is. The downside to using this skin whitening agent is its short-lasting effect. The moment the dosage is stopped, there is a high probability of the skin returning to its former shade. It will be worthy to note that the FDA strongly advises against taking glutathione injections or any other injectables for skin lightening because of the associated risks.
Laser treatment for skin lightening
Getting a Laser treatment is another alternative for skin whitening patrons. In this procedure, lasers are used to extract the outer layer of the skin or interfere with the function of the tyrosinase enzyme which is involved in the production of melanocytes. This method of skin whitening may not work for everyone. Before the procedure is carried out, you will be required to undergo a skin patch test to rule out any contradicting reactions.
Laser sessions usually take about 30 minutes to an hour, and skin recovery may take 1-2 weeks. Short term side effects include bruising, blistering, redness, and inflammation. Serious complications from the procedure are a rare occurrence and may include skin infections and scarring.
Full-body skin lightening surgery
Like with all skin lightening procedures, the full-body skin lightening surgery is aimed at reducing melanin production in the body. It basically removes dull and dark skin cells to uncover lighter and more glowing skin. This surgery includes options such as chemical peeling, laser skin whitening, microdermabrasion, dermabrasion, and full-body bleaching (which is highly not recommended). The treatment which is largely expensive involves several sessions. This skin whitening technique is not approved by authorization bodies and undergoing this surgery is purely at a person’s own risk.
HARMFUL EFFECTS OF SKIN BLEACHING
Health experts and researchers have been consistent in highlighting the dangers of skin lightening creams which outnumbers the purported benefits. In fact,there are no known health benefits associated with the use of skin lightening products. While some of these products pose a lesser risk to the user, others contain highly toxic ingredients such as hydroquinone, mercury, and hydrogen peroxide.
The unfortunate reality remains that there is no way to truly differentiate between safe skin lightening creams and the toxic ones due to fraudulent product misinformation on the part of the manufacturers. Some manufacturing companies do not give a true depiction of the content of their products in order to cash in on unsuspecting buyers. A skin whitening case study published in 2014, found that about 12% of 549 skin color altering used in the study contained mercury. Most of these creams were bought in stores and on online marketing platforms.
Short term side effects of using skin color altering creams include skin irritation, redness, thinning, swelling, and scarring. Long term effects are linked to more dangerous health conditions like kidney, liver and nerve damage. It can cause congenital deformities or abnormalities in newborn babies when used during pregnancy. Skin bleaching products are also linked to an increased susceptibility to infectious agents like viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
In a bid to curtail the harmful use of skin bleaching creams and other agents, some African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ivory cost, Zimbabwe and South Africa have legally banned the importation of skin bleaching products containing hydroquinone and mercury. However, the regulation system is still ineffective in some of these countries and completely non-existent in other countries like India and China.
IN A NUTSHELL…..
Skin bleaching, lightening, or whitening can prove to be potentially dangerous and harmful especially when the products contain toxic ingredients like hydroquinone, mercury, and hydrogen peroxide. If you must use a skin lightening cream or product, ensure to check that it does not contain the above mentioned toxic ingredients or any other unfamiliar ingredient.
Cease usage the moment you notice adverse side effects and report to a doctor immediately. Finally, people should learn to embrace the beauty of their skin regardless of ethnic, societal and cultural skin values or erroneous media propaganda. Remember that it is better to be beautiful in a natural and healthy skin than to glow in a skin exposed to harmful chemicals.