Every woman’s wish is to look beautiful, creams and soaps that lighten the skin or produce a desired tan, remove dark spots, scars and wrinkles and also treat ache. While these products have proved to have a desired effect that many women wish for, they however, also have side effects that are harmful to one’s health which many women are unaware of.
There are many techniques used to lighten skin, and these include skin bleaching, using skin lightening creams, soaps, lotions, pills, laser treatments and even surgery.
According to Isaac Kimbowa, a pharmacist in Phillips Pharmaceuticals in Kampala, every woman has a reason why they rely on these products. while many have a wish to treat and remove certain skin problems like blemishes especially dark spots, discoloration related to hormones, acne scars and Specific zones of abnormally high pigmentation such as moles, birthmarks and vitiligo, other cases however are more related to someone suffering from a low self esteem.
He says, “People are not comfortable in their own skin and tend to admire others people’s looks, which has taken them to extreme ends of skin bleaching, whitening and lightening.”
Skin whitening, lightening, and bleaching refer to the practice of using chemical substances in an attempt to lighten skin tone or provide an even (uniform) skin complexion by reducing the melanin concentration in the skin.
Melanin as disclosed by Kimbowa is a pigment produced by specialized cells called melanocytes scattered within the basal layer of the skin that determines how dark a person’s skin is. He says “The more the melanin production, the darker the skin will be.”
However, apart from determining the colour of the skin, he adds that this pigment also has a natural protective role of protecting the skin from harmful ultra violet rays of the sun which when not shielded from, will make the skin extremely vulnerable to developing skin cancer.
How skin lightening products work and their effects
Whereas there are several chemicals that have been confirmed to be effective in skin lightening, some have been however proven to be toxic and have questionable safety profiles. There are two main chemicals found in most skin lightening products: Hydroquinone and Mercury.
As revealed by Dr Arbinder Singal, the co-founder of www.MediAngels.com, The World’s First Global e-Hospital, Hydroquinone (C6H6O2) is a severely toxic and very powerful chemical used in photo processing, the manufacture of rubber and is an active agent in hair dyes. Mercury on the other hand is carcinogenic (cancer producing) chemical produced in the form of Mercury Chloride and Ammoniated Mercury.
He states that these two chemicals appear on the list of toxic substances that can only be purchased via pharmacies with prescribed labels of toxicity.
When it comes to lightening the skin, he says that both these chemicals perform a similar process in a short term effect. “They initially cause the skin to lighten by inhibiting the production of melanin.” However, he notes that it is the long term effects that need to be addressed.
When Hydroquinone or Mercury is applied to the skin in the longer term, they actually react with ultra violet rays and re-oxidize, leading to more pigmentation and premature ageing. As explained by Dr. Singal, once the skin starts to lightens, if it is not shielded from the ultra violet rays, these rays will react with the above two chemicals willing the body to fight by producing more melanin which results in the development of a darker patchier appearance of the skin.
In an attempt to correct the darker blotchy appearance, he adds that a person will be forced to apply more products which will continue to alter the skin’s natural structure thus the beginnings of a vicious cycle of making the skin more susceptible to skin cancer.
In its report, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) states that the signs of prolonged use of Hydroquinone normally appear as a rough blotchy skin with a spotty appearance. This comes after the thickening of the collagen fibres which damage the connective tissues.
Whereas Mercury on the other hand slowly accumulates within the skin cells striping the skin of its natural pigment leaving behind the tell-tale signs of grey/ blue pigmentation in the folds of the skin.
In the long term, it states this chemical can damage vital organs and lead to liver and kidney failure, tremors, muscle spasms and mercury poisoning.
The symptoms of mercury poisoning include emotional disturbances, unsteadiness, inflammation of the mouth and gums, general fatigue, memory loss, forgetfulness and headaches. There can also be behavioral and personality changes such as irritability, low self-confidence, depression, unusual shyness and timidity (including fear and discomfort during normal social situations).
How legal are these products
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), the use of mercury in commercial skin bleaching creams and soaps goes back to the early 1900s. Before 1970, commercial bleaching creams would normally use ammoniated mercury to produce a lightening effect on the skin. These bleaching creams were aggressively marketed to black people in the US.
While In 1976, the use of mercury in cosmetic products was banned in the EU, the US banned the use of mercury in skin bleaching creams much later in 1990.
However, products containing up to 2 percent Hydroquinone were legally available in the UK until 2001 when the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) issued the draft 24th Commission Directive. This bans were implemented due to the fear of long term effects including skin cancer of hydroquinone as it accumulates in the skin tissues. However, in US, hydroquinone is still in use but under prescriptions.
Despite the bans, WHO reports that the demand for these products is so high that there are illegal imports via small operators from Asia and Africa of creams, lotions and soaps of up to 6 percent which are also sold over the counter, without a prescription in the US and UK.
It discloses that products with very high levels of mercury contamination look grey or cream colored. The amount or concentration of mercury in a product may be labeled on the packaging or in the ingredient list. Names to look for include mercury, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, ammoniated mercury, amide chloride of mercury, quicksilver, cinnabaris (mercury sulfide), mercury oxide, mercury iodide or “poison”
It warns however that companies selling products that contain mercury, do not always list it as an ingredient. But given the fact that these chemicals have other uses apart from lightening the skin, a person should understand that these compounds have deleterious effects and should never be used ‘lightly’.
Among the safe ingredients, a person can use to lighten the skin and treat skin problems as revealed by Dr. Singal include: Arbutin, Vitamin C, Licorice, Kojic acid, and vitamin A.
Unlike hydroquinone and mercury, Dr. Singal says Arbutin is considered to be a safe ingredient for external use because it does not have any side effects like unpleasant odour, toxicity or stimulation. Whereas Kojid acid is another most important bleaching agent, which can easily inhibit the production of Melanin in the body without dire consequences.
For prevention of an ageing skin, he says Vitamin C is an effective ingredient because it helps in synthesizing collagen in the body while Vitamin A can be used for treating damaged pelt complications such as vitiligo, hyper pigmentation, melasma, and skin infection etc. He adds that Licorice is another ingredient that can easily inhibit UV-B induced pigmentation and other skin complications with ease.
Ways for a Glowing Skin Naturally
On the other hand, Sahaj Samadhi, an Indian meditation Course Teacher believes that there are some natural ways that can give a person a natural glowing skin. Given that God created people with natural dark skin complexions, ‘altering them to get a lighter or whitened complexion is not the answer’, she states.
She says, “Our skin wears down due to stressful lifestyle, hectic work schedule, inadequate sleep, lack of nutritional diet, pollution, harmful sun rays (UVA/UVB), excessive smoking and drinking alcohol. All of these are part and parcel of our life and we cannot run away from them, but can surely prevent them as ‘prevention is always better than cure’.”
Some of the natural and simple tips she reveals that can give one a glowing skin which also helps in cleansing and rejuvenating the skin include the following: a healthy balance diet full of proteins and vitamins, regular exercises that also include the practice of yoga and meditation, having 8 hours of sleep, washing your face at night to remove off the daily dirt and make up and also having a positive attitude creates a lighter mood and some peace of mind.
She however cautions people from drinking alcohol and smoking because these have toxins that can impair the immune system and also create skin problems.