Skin bleaching refers to the use of products to lighten dark areas of the skin or achieve an overall lighter complexion. These products include bleaching creams, soaps, and pills, as well as professional treatments like chemical peels and laser therapy.
Efforts to lighten the skin date back to at least the 1500s in Asia. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proven to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles. This includes mercury compounds which may cause neurological problems and kidney problems. In a number of African countries, between 25 and 80% of women regularly use skin whitening products. In Asia, this number is around 40%. In India, specifically, over half of skin care products are sold to whiten skin.
There are many complex terminologies in use when it comes to skin bleaching. In this article we will try to provide insights and explanation as to what each implies as well as the advantages and disadvantages of bleaching.
What is Skin whitening?
Skin whitening is a term that is used differently depending on the source. This is where you have to be extra diligent in looking at your ingredients and the company before purchasing or using a skin whitening product. For example, it’s very common among individuals of Asian descent to use the term skin whitening for products that lighten darker skin spots. In this case, skin whitening is referring to the use of creams that combat hyperpigmentation.
Contrast this with skin bleaching products which change the color of your natural skin. Bleaching is achieved through the use of very harsh and possibly dangerous chemicals and is not recommended.
What is Skin lightening?
The process of using skin products that lighten dark spots caused by hyperpigmentation is referred to as skin lightening. In essence, skin lightening evens the skin tone by focusing on areas of the skin that are discolored, like blemishes and pigmentation, age spots, acne, and other forms of hyperpigmentation. This is achieved through the use of a lightening cream that inhibits the overproduction of the enzyme tyrosinase that is responsible for producing melanin.
How Skin Lightening Cream Works
Skin lightening creams contain ingredients that work to decrease your body’s production of melanin. Melanin is responsible for the pigment in your skin, and is made by cells called melanocytes. Bleaching products work by lowering the number of melanocytes in your skin. Most skin lightening creams contain hydroquinone, which is known to decrease melanocytes. Vitamin C, also a common ingredient in skin lightening creams, is an antioxidant that is known to lower melanin production in our cells. Glycolic acid, which is also found in many skin brightening creams, works as an exfoliant and helps to brighten the skin by clearing away dead cells.
Advantages Of Skin Bleaching
Cosmetic Benefits. The main benefit that skin lightening creams may provide is a balanced pigmentation, even skin coloring, and reduced appearance of dark spots, freckles, and acne scars.
Skin brightening products can come in the form of creams, lotions, oils, and serums. Skin bleaching products are also available in injectable options. If you’re planning on trying one, talk with your dermatologist about the best fit. Creams and oils are usually heavier and better for dry skin. If your skin tends to be on the oily side, opt for a lighter serum. Cosmeceuticals, cosmetic products that also provide health benefits, are a popular option for skin brightening. These products usually come in the form of a cream or serum, and can be used to treat dark spots and acne scars.
If you have noticed skin darkening or new freckles or moles over the years, you may be curious about skin lightening products. Many people have sought these creams to help reduce age spots and scars, as well as to make freckles less noticeable.
Medical Benefits. There are several medical reasons behind dark spots or an uneven skin tone. Aging and sun damage can leave dark spots on the face. Melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) are both conditions that cause darkening over areas of the body that are exposed to the sun more often, such as the forehead and cheeks. PIH leads to a darker complexion in areas that were inflamed because of trauma, which can include scarring or severe acne that leaves dark spots after it resolves.
Hormonal imbalances and endocrine disease like Addison’s disease can also lead to darkening of the skin. Addison’s disease is when the adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones. Those with Addison’s disease produce a high level of adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the melanocytes to produce more melanin, resulting in skin darkening. People who are affected by these illnesses may use skin lightening creams to counteract the darkening effects on their skin.
Disadvantages of Skin Bleaching
Most brightening creams contain ingredients like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury. These components each come with documented health risks. Because many over-the-counter and natural skin lightening products have not been proven safe or effective, many don’t provide long-lasting results. Users may notice that their skin returns to its original color after the bleaching effect wears off.
People who have used skin lightening creams have reported dermatitis and skin irritation. Because many of the products contain steroids, steroid acne is also a possible side effect. Skin lightening creams can lead to skin breakdown and leave users with open sores and scarring. The redness and lesions can lead to pain that is difficult to manage.
The ingredient hydroquinone has been linked to exogenous ochronosis, a disorder that makes the skin appear black and blue. This condition is difficult to treat and can result in permanent discoloration of the skin.
Skin Bleaching Has Its Roots in Prejudice. A deeply negative side to skin lightening creams is that they can be used to promote or perpetuate colorism. Colorism refers to the belief that lighter skin is better and more beautiful than darker skin. Women around the globe have felt pressure to use these sometimes-dangerous products in order to avoid prejudice and gain privilege in certain cultures.
Serious Risks. Concerns have been raised over recent years about the mercury content in skin lightening creams. Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic in even small amounts. The FDA has limited the amount of mercury in cosmetic products to trace amounts not exceeding 1 ppm. In a 2014 study, researchers tested 549 skin lightening products for their mercury content, and found that 6% contained mercury levels above 1000 ppm and some as high as 10,000 ppm. Of the U.S. products, 3.3% had mercury levels over 1000 ppm. While the products from the United States were safer, it can be difficult to determine the origin country of the products when purchasing from online retailers.
Being exposed to mercury over time can cause symptoms like numbness, tingling, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches, and depression. More severe symptoms include confusion, muscle weakness, trouble breathing, changes in vision and difficulty walking. Mercury poisoning requires immediate medical attention.
Exposure to mercury can also cause kidney damage over time. Users of skin brightening products have been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome after using the cream for months. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder that causes the body to excrete too much protein in the urine. Symptoms of nephrotic syndrome include severe swelling and fluid retention, foamy urine, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Nephrotic syndrome is treatable, however, and will resolve once the mercury exposure stops.
The FDA has banned the sale of injectable products because they are not proven to work and carry dangerous side effects. The agency found that many of the products contain ingredients like glutathione, collagen, and human placenta. The labels don’t provide a full list of ingredients, so users are injecting unknown substances directly into their veins or muscles when they use these products.
While it’s known that the short-term risks like mercury poisoning and nephrotic syndrome are serious, it’s unclear what the long-term effects of using these products are. The chemicals in skin lightening creams have not been studied over a long period of time, so it’s unknown if they will lead to cancer or other chronic conditions. Read: Does Clinic Clear Contain Hydroquinone?