Skin bleaching (also called skin lightening, skin whitening and skin toning) refers to the practice of using chemical substances to lighten skin tone or provide an even skin complexion by lessening the concentration of melanin. Homemade concoctions, cosmetic products and dermatological products are used to decrease the melanin. Manipulation of skin color has ancient beginnings and the practice continues to grow, often in harmful ways.
Although other personal choices such as tattooing, piercing or Botox carry inherent risks, skin bleaching is in a whole other and potentially dangerous category. Many of the bleaching mixtures have dangerous components and are purchased from unreliable sources. Major problems occur if bleaching products contain harmful ingredients such as mercury (a metal that blocks production of melanin but also can act as a poison to damage the nervous system) and high-potency steroids such as clobetasol.
Improper use of the bleaching products can result in permanent scarring and thinning of the skin. Common problems include uneven color loss, leading to a blotchy appearance and possible blue-black darkening of the skin, permanent skin bleaching, and redness and intense irritation.
The bleaching products are often available for sale over the Internet, providing unlimited access to potential customers. According to recent data, in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25 percent, 77 percent, 27 percent, 35 percent and 59 percent of women, respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products regularly. In 2004, nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners.
Certain sociologists and other observers highlight issues such as societies that continue to privilege whiteness, betraying one’s culture, lack of education, media brainwashing and “colonial mentality.” Professor Christopher Charles, a faculty member of The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, has studied the psychology of bleaching and has an upcoming book on the subject. He said many young Jamaicans perceive it "as a modern thing, like Botox, to fashion their own body in a unique way." Charles writes about the issues of self-hate, self-esteem and the multi-factorial reasons behind skin bleaching.
Is there safe use of bleaching creams? Conventional and historic use of bleaching creams containing hydroquinone at 2.0 percent to 5.0 percent concentrations are modestly effective in treating certain pigmentary disorders. Achieving success depends on diligent, long-term treatment by patients carefully instructed in methods of use, as well as protection from sun exposure and knowing the signs of allergic contact dermatitis.
In Japan, the European Union and Australia, hydroquinone has been removed from over-the-counter skin products and substituted with other chemicals due to concerns about health risks. In the United States, over-the-counter creams containing up to two percent hydroquinone are recognized as safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
If low-potency topical corticosteroids, mild salicylic acid or tretinoin are added under a physician's supervision, improvement may occur, although most people experience, at best, only partial improvement and want more results. The problem is that many people want more demonstrable results in a quicker time and choose high-dose and destructive skin bleaching.
Is there a viable way to decrease the harmful activity of skin bleaching in the Caribbean and throughout the world? In the context of political-economic shifts in the Caribbean, how does political economy and media influence decision-making and skin color choice?
Eva Lewis-Fuller, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health director of health promotion and protection, states she is redoubling education programs to combat bleaching in the predominantly black island of 2.8 million. Images of fair-skinned people predominate in commercials for high-end products and in the social pages of newspapers.
“Bleaching has gotten far worse and widespread in recent years,” Lewis-Fuller said. “(Bleachers) want to be accepted within their circle of society. They want to be attractive to the opposite sex. They want career opportunities. But we are saying there are side effects and risks. It can disfigure your face.”
Campaigns by health officials on local radio stations warn of bleaching hazards and other efforts have included putting up posters in schools, holding talks and handing out literature about the dangers. A similar anti-bleaching campaign in 2007 called “Don't Kill the Skin” did little to slow the craze. Although little data exists on the prevalence of damage caused by skin-bleaching agents, dermatologists and other health officials are reportedly seeing more cases.
Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the American Sociological Association, has stated it is wrong to assume that skin-lightening was a cultural anachronism or an effort to negate one’s racial heritage. She is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “In fact, it’s a growing practice and one that has been stimulated by the companies that produce these products.
Their advertisements connect happiness and success and romance with being lighter skinned.” Glenn denies that dark-skinned women are imagining a bias, and that “Sociological studies have shown among African-Americans and also Latinos, there’s a clear connection between skin color and socioeconomic status. It’s not some fantasy. There is prejudice against dark-skinned people, especially women in the so-called marriage market.”
Comments attributed to U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada, as reported in a new book, stated that he had urged Barack Obama to run for president because the country was ready to accept a “light skinned” African American.
Many users seek to lighten their entire face or large swatches of their body as a way to elevate one’s social standing, especially in developing countries such as Senegal, India and the Philippines.
Skin bleaching is a dynamic and compelling problem that requires immediate research and intervention with users to prevent progressive physical and psychological damage. New research and understanding will contribute to public policy. Questions about identity and race, economics, and a holistic approach to a disturbing problem are at the core of the skin bleaching problem. With more discussion, education and intervention, the problem can be minimized. Dr. Rob Norman’s has been a dermatologist for more than 25 years. His newest book is The Blue Man and Other Stories of the Skin.