Skin Lightening: Dangers and Cultural Perils

Many people are aware of the dangers of tanning from UV exposure, with the link between skin cancer being well documented. On another shade of the spectrum, the use of skin lightening creams among almost every non-European race on the planet is far less documented and researched. Yet today in the West, women of all cultures and races are a growing clientele in dermatologist's offices, as a result of the side effects of harsh, often toxic, and sometimes carcinogenic skin lightening creams.

There is a wide range of reasons for skin lightening in non-white cultures. Most commonly, colonization is blamed, and the promotion of lighter skinned women in the media seems to have a direct link with the self esteem of women and their skin color. Sociologists have found that the idea of skin color and social success are linked. There are clear connections with lighter skinned individuals having greater socio-economic success in western economies. In countries like India, Thailand and the Philippines, marital success is considered to be related to the lightness of your skin.

Women may be aware of the dangers of skin lightening treatments, but as shown on the Tyra Banks show, no matter how great the risk to the woman’s health, the idea of being considered more "beautiful" or accepted in society negates the risk for many women. Furthermore, skin lightening has remained an underground movement. Most cultures who have grown up with it are aware of their mothers, sisters and aunts caking their skin in white lotions on the weekends or even nightly, yet no one talks about it. It is considered the secret beauty treatment. There has been no sustained campaign from medical bodies about the dangers of skin lightening (as there has been with UV exposure). Individual communities sometimes host awareness events, but the scale of such events hardly compares to the imprint of mass media and social norms.

Health risks with skin lightening comes from the unregulated and toxic products used in the creams. These include Hydroquinone, a substance banned in Europe and Japan for it’s direct carcinogenic link, with prolonged use it accumulates in the skin. However it is widely available in ‘alternative’ beauty stores in the USA, Canada and Europe. Mercury which strips the skin of it’s natural pigmentation, is well known for its toxicity, which can cause kidney and liver failure. More commonly known is the ingredient Hydrogen Peroxide which temporarily whitens the skin through oxidation. It is absorbed by the skin and can cause metabolic problems, resulting in pain and gastric issues. Its most visible side effect is the patchy depigmentation of the skin known as Vitiligo. Many times these unregulated underground creams do not list ingredients fully, so consumers can't know what is going on their skin. Side effects are vast and can include toxicity, burning, bruising and thinning of the skin as well as acne and depigmentation.

The reality is that no matter how much we preach about the dangers of certain chemicals, the message falls on dead ears. A sustained public health campaign is needed, with more research from the medical community resulting in an evidence campaign to warn against damages. Further action is needed by communities to tackle the social impact; this has been initiated by documentaries such as ‘Dark Girls’, which has done a fantastic job of highlighting the roots of this health destructive and overpowering detrimental process.