Skin lightening, sometimes called skin bleaching, is a startlingly popular trend across the world. There are a number of treatments and products sold for this purpose, not all of which are advisable or even safe for your skin.
To some, the reasoning behind this market may seem mysterious. Silly as it is, we always appear want what we don’t (or can’t) have! In the US and other Western nations, naturally pale women often darken themselves in tanning beds with harmful UV lights that could lead to premature aging or even cancer. Many people with naturally darker skin seek the very opposite, going to extreme measures to brighten their complexions.
Where skin lightening is popular
Though it may not seem prevalent in the US, NPR reports that at a global level skin lightening products make up one-half of the entire cosmetics industry. Japan, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are all places where lightning is popular. Both men and women use the creams, and it’s marketed for face, hands, and even private parts! In China, CBS reports the industry for whitening is worth billions, with people wanting to distinguish themselves as light to show off, find better jobs, or lure in romantic partners (who might be in for a surprise). In India, people purchased more lightening products than Coca-Cola.
Some cultures might place a high value on light skin tones as a sign of social status for reasons that date back to colonialism or other major moments in a country’s history. Celebrities, media, and the prominent people in power can also have an effect. Discriminating based on skin tone is called colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982. Though it seems old-fashioned, the popularity of whitening products has only increased since then.
How skin whitening works
Unsafe, or downright hazardous chemicals used in skin lightening products have caused some countries to ban all skin lightening products altogether. The toxic ingredients that are banned by the FDA in the US may appear in cremes and serums abroad, so be cautious about bringing anything home from vacations. In some cases the whitening products use mercury, which can cause mercury poisoning, liver damage, and fetal damage in pregnant women.
In the US, many products use hydroquinone, retinoic acid, or even natural products. Hydroquinone is safe in smaller doses as a topical skin brightener. For over the counter creams and gels, allergic reactions and other negative consequences (including wasting your money!) are still possibilities.
What it’s not
Blotchy skin and uneven pigmentation can come about in several ways. Patients can be born with skin discolorations, or acquire them over time from sun exposure, acne, or even bug bites. Solar lengito, commonly known as sun spots, are common on the face, neck, hands, and chest. Fabric that chafes against the skin can also cause discoloration, especially around the armpits.
Women can also experience hyperpigmentation during pregnancy, when increased estrogen can cause melasma, which are gray or brown patches that are especially common on the face. Redness can come from sun exposure, dryness, or rosacea. Each situation depends on a person’s particular skin, and some are more frequent in people with darker skin tones or of certain genetic backgrounds. A dermatologist can diagnose the cause, and provide safe treatments when necessary.
Skin tones make us human
Everyone deserves to feel beautiful. Changing one’s skin color is a major choice, and something that doesn’t change the person inside. We can embrace the characteristics that make us interesting and unique while still striving for the best version of them.
In India, the film star Nandita Das launched a campaign called Dark is Beautiful. In Ghana, Cote d‘Ivoire and South Africa the governments have enforced restrictions on all bleaching products to protect consumers from harmful and sometimes carcinogenic ingredients. Whether it’s celebrity-led or government-led, people should feel proud putting their natural best face forward.
What to do
Sunscreen can help prevent some types of pigmentation from forming in the first place. In some cases, such as pregnancy or birth control, the fluctuations in hormones can balance out. Exfoliating, moisturizing, and avoiding picking at spots can help. In a dermatologist’s office, there are peels, laser treatments, and other procedures which can reduce or eliminate pigmentation.
It’s very important to have a professional determine the cause of changes to skin tone. Spots can be cancerous, and it’s always important to rule out medical issues before proceeding with a change or treatment.
Bright, clear, radiant skin in any color can be beautiful. Work with what you’re born with, ask your dermatologist how to safely treat it, and all shades can shine.
For cosmetic and medical inquiries, make an appointment with Bobby Buka MD on ZocDoc today!