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iHerb: The dark side of skin bleaching 

Between colourism and a lack of confidence, women are buying into the skin bleaching industry at an alarming rate.

Skin whitening has become a madness throughout Asia. The belief and practice to have lighter skin has been deep rooted from ancient times. For example, as per Chinese myths, pearls can lighten one’s complexion by taking a small amount of pearl powder together with hot water every day. In some countries, aristocrats and rich people in the 17th and 18th Centuries kept their skin white by applying lead oxide powder to their faces to differentiate themselves from the working masses. The colonial legacy in South Asia is said to be one of the contributory factors for the belief that white is powerful and white is beautiful, as normally the white race was the ruler and the dark natives were the ruled. The preference to have white skin has driven the skin lightening industry. This phenomenon was reflected in the domination of skin lightening products in the Asian skincare market with 60% of sales.

A number of countries have banned the use of skin bleaching products because of the dangers associated with them. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also issued a notice that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognised as safe and effective. The products were deemed not safe for human use, based on a review of evidence. However, still the practice of skin bleaching has become very common. Skin colour is generated by the melanin pigment which is produced by cells called melanocytes. The function of melanin is to give the colour to the iris, the skin, and protect it from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The amount of melanin in your skin is mostly determined by genetics. However, hormones, sunlight, and certain chemicals also affect melanin production. People with dark skin have more melanin. Melanin is deposited near the surface of the skin. It absorbs dangerous UV rays from the sun, working as a protective barrier to prevent the UV light from travelling deeper into the skin. UV light can cause DNA damage in cells and skin cancer, so melanin is an extremely important molecule. Skin bleaching reduces the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. When a bleaching product is applied to the skin, it decreases the number of melanocytes in your skin. This can result in lighter skin and a more even appearance to the skin. Skin bleaching procedures also have adverse effects on health. Bleaching completely destroys the amount of melanin in our skin making it more vulnerable and making those without it more susceptible to ailments such as skin cancer. 

Mercury poisoning is one of the adverse effects that can occur due to skin bleaching procedures. Some skin bleaching creams have been linked to mercury toxicity. Mercury has been banned as an ingredient in skin lightening products in the US, but products made in other countries still contain mercury. Signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning include: numbness; high blood pressure; fatigue; sensitivity to light; neurologic symptoms, such as tremor, memory loss, and irritability; kidney failure; and dermatitis. Case studies and reports have linked the use of skin bleaching products to contract dermatitis – inflammation of the skin caused by contact with certain substances. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include: skin redness, blisters, skin ulcers, hives, dry scaly skin, swelling, itching, burning, and tenderness. Another adverse effect is exogenous ochronosis (EO). It is a skin disorder that causes blue-black pigmentation which usually occurs as a complication of long-term use of skin bleaching creams that contain hydroquinone. People who use it on large areas of the body or on the entire body are more likely to develop EO.  Skin bleaching creams that contain corticosteroids can cause steroid acne. Steroid acne mostly affects the chest, but can also show up on the back, arms, and other parts of the body with long-term use of corticosteroids. Symptoms can include: whiteheads and blackheads; small red bumps; large, painful red lumps; and acne scars. Super-potent corticosteroid agents in the products may result in a number of cutaneous effects, including local immunosuppression leading to bacterial, viral, and fungal skin infections.

(The writer holds a BAMS [Hons] from the University of Colombo and a Diploma in Panchakarma, and is currently reading for an Msc in Food and Nutrition from the University of Peradeniya)