Still On The Dangers Of Skin Bleaching, by Aishat M. Abisola
If you are somehow not aware of what skin bleaching is, it is the act or method of using chemical substances to lighten one’s complexion or provide an even skin tone by reducing the concentration of melanin in the skin with use of lightening creams(products).
Melanin is a pigment in the skin that is produced by cells known as melanocytes. Draker skinned people have more melanin.
The amount of melanin that your skin has depend on your genetic makeup.
Skin bleaching is something that has been going on for thousands of years and the earliest recorded practice of skin bleaching can be traced back to 200 B.C.
Interestingly enough, it is a practice that has made its way around the world with various cultures adopting under different (but quite similar) ideologies and beliefs.
I believe that skin bleaching, despite the “positive” effects that it gives to its users, is more damaging to the psyche than it is to the body.
I don’t doubt that it harms the skin but the main issue is that the user believes, due to societal expectations and norms, that with a lighter skin tone, they will look more attractive and seem less inferior than if they didn’t bleach their skin.
This, in turn, causes them to continuously bleach their skin until it is lighter which will damage it from the amount of harsh chemicals that are in the lightening creams.
Since skin bleaching has had a bit of prominence in world history, I will explain a bit about its history in Asia, Europe, America, Latin America and Africa.
In Asia, the history of skin whitening spans back to ancient times.
To be light skinned in such an environment meant that you were wealth and a part of the nobility because they were able to stay indoors as compared to servants who had to perform labour in the sun.
Ancient Asian cultures associated light skin with “feminine beauty”.
Skin bleaching held prominence in Asia as early as the 16th century and its similarity to European cosmetics meant that it caused severe health problems and physical malformations.
An example of this would be that in Japan, Samurai mothers, who would use lead-based white paint on their faces, would have children who had symptoms of lead toxicity as well as stunted bone growth.
In India, the preference for lighter skin was linked to the caste system, social status, and centuries of outsider rule by lighter skinned nations.
In Europe, the act of skin lightening was documented in ancient Greece and Rome. The cosmetics would be mixed with white lead carbonate and mercury to lighten the skin.
During the Elizebethan era, skin whitening was a frequently documented practice.
Queen Elizabeth’s use of skin whiteners became a standard of beauty.
Lighter skin was associated with the aristocracy and higher socio-economic class.
A skin whitener by the name of “Venetian Ceruse”, a mixture of lead and vinegar, was quite popular amongst both men and women. However, it would cause hair loss, skin corrosion, tooth deterioration, blindness, premature aging, muscle paralysis, and was also reported to have caused lead poisoning.
Othe practices included washing one’s face in urine and ingesting arsenic.
In America, skin whitening was mostly used by white women as European immigrants introduce skin lightening recipes to the colonies where they would eventually incorporate native American and West African herbal tradition.
Skin lighteners included Venetian Ceruse, arsenic, and products laced with mercury and lead.
Although it was a popular practice, skin lightening was not well receives as women and men who used it were respectively described as artificial and effeminate.
Black American women began using them in the mid-19th century as a result of the Jim Crow Laws which caused Black Americans to face both social and legal restrictions.
Advertisements were targeted towards black consumers which framed lighter skin tones as cleaner and better looking, however beauty magazines would criticise black women who used skin lighteners as fake and unusual.
Oddly enough, tanned skin became popular among white women in the 1930s as it had become a symbol of wealth.
It is believed that because indoor settings had become common for labour, tanned skin became associated with leisure and travel.
The “Black is Beautiful” movement in the 1960s slowed down the sale of skin lighteners but it became popular again the 1980s after tanning was linked to premature aging and skin damage (cancer).
The practice of skin lightening has been well documented in South America and the Caribbean. Studies have linked the prevalence skin whitening in these nations to colonialism and slavery as a consequence of what is called “blanquemiento” which promotes the ideal of social hierarchies based on Eurocentric skin tones and features.
Women would use vegetable mixtures or cashew nut oil to lighten skin, which had painful side effects.
In Africa, skin whitening was as a result of European colonialism.
In South Africa, a prominent usage was recorded in the early 20th century. In the 1970s, the government established regulations for skin lightening products and banned the use of mercury or high levels of hydroquinone.
The critiquing of skin whitening was added into the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s due to its effects on health as well as the social impact of colourism.
In Ghana, it was documented in the early 16th century during the period of colonial rule.
Many skin whitening practices in Africa occurred as a result of European colonial rule and increased after many nations had gained their independence.
Chemicals that are commonly found in skin whiteners are hydroquinone (which decreases melanin), Corticosteroids, tretinoin(usually combined with hydroquinone or steroids), Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), and Glutathione (a whitening agent that is taken from the mouth and can be used as a cream).
Skin whiteners usually contain corticosteroids, hydroquinone, and mercury which can cause both superficial and internal complications.
As such, they are illegal to use and market in many countries, but it is often revealed that chemicals are still being sold in cosmetic products even though it is not stated.
Continuous usage of mercury based products can cause side effects such as pneumonitis ( inflammation of lung tissue), gastric irritation, long term renal and neurological issues, insomnia and memory loss.
Mercury is sometimes be labelled in products by other names like calomel, mercuric, mercurio, mercurous.
Hydroquinone can cause nephrotoxicity (rapid deterioration of kidney function) and leukaemia in the bone marrow.
Long term usage of Corticosteroids has been known to cause skin fragility, cataracts, edema, glaucoma, skin atrophy, osteoporosis, stunted growth and menstrual irregularities.
Skin bleaching does more harm than good.
It doesn’t matter whether you feel as if it would improve your looks or make you feel less inferior.
The belief that lighter skin equals beauty is a rotten ideal based on European and Eurocentric beliefs that were cast upon us due to colonial rule.
Skin bleaching can damage the face just as easily as it can lighten it.
Dermatitis, steroid acne (caused by corticosteroids and appear on the back, arms, and other body parts) and Exogenous Ochronosis (skin disorder that causes blue-black pigmentation) are most definitely waiting for you in the near future if you decide to continue using skin bleaching products.
It is also important to note that if you are pregnant, stop using as skin bleaching products as they can cause health complications for you and your children.
If you truly want to lighten your skin and don’t want to damage it carelessly, below are some ways to do so:
· Talk to a dermatologist about ways that you can lighten your without damaging it (chemical peels, laser treatment, dermabrasion etc)
· Try homemade lightening remedies (apple cider vinegar, green tea extract, aloe vera, etc)
· Protect your skin from the sun (use sunscreen, try wearing a hat before going outside)
· Do your research on skin whitening
· Ask your dermatologist about the levels of hydroquinone in products if it isn’t explicitly stated
There is a saying that your body is a temple and that it should be kept clean.
With those words in mind, please take more care of your bodies as they house our souls.
A damaged house cannot protect its habitants.
Aishat M. Abisola is a member of the Society for Health Communication
Wuye District, Abuja