Skin Whitening and Lightening: Is It Safe?
Asians place a high premium on “paleness.” After all, they spend an estimated $18 billion a year to appear pale. If the term seems awkward, it is justly so. In the western world, paleness is often synonymous with ill-health.
In Asia, however, “paleness,” or “fair complexion” is highly valued. Just ask me. I grew up in a culture where fair complexion is perceived to be more desirable. It is synonymous with beauty and grace. But poor me, I was scrawny as a child and unfortunately, tan or what they call, “dark-skinned.”
It didn’t take much intuition (and children have an innate endowment of this quality) to know that I was not considered “pretty.” Many times, compliments were passed onto my fairer friends that left me standing there, looking like a dark ugly duckling.
They meant no harm, but the agony was enough to send me wishing, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, make me fair and all.”
Fair and all I didn’t become, no matter how hard I wished. If only I had wished for a fairy godmother with vials of skin lightening potion instead.
But why the emphasis on being white of complexion? The simple answer is in a deeply-held belief, right or wrong, that has a long history dating back to the Han Dynasty.
“The feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly white. Moon-like roundish faces, long black hair. You can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might continue with an ideal that light skin equals beauty,“ says Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum.
Chinese also believe that “One white can cover up three uglinesses.” Loosely translated, it means that you can cover up all your defective parts if you are white.
Time may have moved on, but this belief is still very evident by the number of skin lightening products sold in Asia. In fact, 50 percent of Taiwanese women (and a growing number of men as well) are paying big bucks to alter their golden exteriors.
Whenever I go home to visit in Singapore, I’m confronted with the belief that fairer is better. Well-meaning relatives and friends ask with great concern: “Why do you remain tan, even though you live in a white country now?”
But personal trivia aside, is skin lightening safe? Is it worth the price of your skin? Let’s look at some skin lightening basics.
What Is Skin Lightening?
Our skin epidermis contains melanocytes, which produces melanin, a pigment, responsible for the color of the skin, hair and eyes.
Although human beings generally possess similar concentration of melanocytes, some individuals or ethnic groups have genes that stimulate higher production of melanin, resulting in a darker shade.
Skin Lightening Aids
The cosmetic industry is happy to capitalize on this need to “lighten” skin color by producing a variety of skin lightening products such as lotion, cream, pills, and even washes and soaps.
Cosmetic procedures are also available in the form of chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and other methods of exfoliation to remove superficial pigmented skin cells. In Asia, whitening injections are also used to whiten skin.
The Science Behind the Skin
Skin lightening ingredients are used based on their abilities to break down the actions of the enzyme, tyrosinase, which works to catalyze the chemical production of melanin in the body.
To achieve a fairer complexion, the logic is to shut down tyrosinase activity.
Is it Safe?
There are a few ways to ensure your skin lightening products are safe. First, consult a dermatologist before using them.
In addition, check the ingredients used in the products and make sure that none of them are banned by the FDA. So far, only hydoquinone is approved by the FDA and even then, there are some concerns about its safety.
The American Academy of Dermatology says that treatment with topical skin lightening cream containing hydroquinone, retinoids, azaelic acid, hydroxyacids or kojic acids may be effective in treating the overproduction of melanin, a condition known as melasma.
Let’s take a closer look at each one:
Hydroquinone is an ingredient used in skin-lightening products as it can interfere with tyrosinase function, thereby reducing pigment in the skin. It is also used for treating age spots and blemishes.
There have been many controversies regarding its safety after studies in rodents showed “some evidence” that hydroquinone may contain carcinogens, which are cancer-causing agents.
Excessive use of hydroquinone can also produce a condition called ochronosis, whereby the skin becomes dark and blue.
Some studies also indicate an abnormal function of the adrenal glands and high levels of mercury in people who used cosmetics containing hydroquinone. Because of these findings, it is banned in Europe, Japan and Australia.
However, the FDA has allowed the use of hydroquinone with a doctor’s prescription and has also approved certain hydroquinone products such as Lustrate, Alustra, Glyquin, Obagi and Tri-Lama.
Retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A and are generally used for the treatment of acne and fine wrinkles. They are also used in bleaching creams to reduce pigmentation.
Hydroxyl acids refer to a group of naturally-occurring acids, derived from sugars in a number of natural products:
- Glycolic (sugar cane)
- Lactic acid (milk)
- Tartaric acid (grapes)
- Citric acid (citrus fruits)
- Malic acid (apples)
- Mandela acids (bitter almonds)
These acids are good exfoliates, dissolving dead skin cells and increasing cell turnover. Apart from treating acne, they are known to fade melasma.
Azaelic acid is a derivative of a natural occurring by-product of the metabolism of the yeast Pityrosporum ovale.
It is used commonly for treating acne and dermatologists make use of its side effects as a skin lightener. It works by targeting overactive melanocytes to reduce melanin production.
Skin lighteners have been known to cause skin irritations and in some cases, skin disfiguration. Some contain mercury derivatives such as mercury chloride which can cause disfiguration. Mercury can also cause kidney and speech problems.
Another important consideration: Lightening your skin can make your skin more vulnerable to UV radiation.
“The whiter they become, the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer,” says Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez, director of international dermatology training at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
Do I still wish for dewy fair skin? Maybe, but not enough for me to risk any side-effects that may arise when you try to alter nature. I'm happy with the skin God has given me and I'm proud of it.
Disclaimer: This hub is for general information and not meant to replace medical advice. Always consult a certified physician before using any skin lighteners.