Would you use a cream or soap that may have the following long-term side effects – skin cancer, liver damage, kidney damage or poisoning? Well, there is now lot of evidence to suggest that some active ingredients used in publicly available skin-whitening products can cause all these and more. Certain skin-lightening products containing a chemical called hydroquinone are already banned for sale in the European Union, Australia, and Japan, amongst other countries as an over-the-counter (without prescription) ingredient. The US FDA has put forth a proposal to ban the over-the-counter sale of such products.
However, in Asia, skin whitening is a huge market. India, Singapore, China and Malaysia have shown almost 100% increase in sales every year for the past five years and are the largest single group of cosmetics sold in these countries.
Before we get into how these products are harmful, let’s try and understand some basics:
A pigment called Melanin produced by melanocytes scattered within the basal layer of the skin determines how dark a person’s skin is. More the melanin production, darker is the skin. However, this pigment also has a protective role. It is the skin’s own natural protection from the harmful ultra violet rays of the sun. Without it, the skin is extremely vulnerable to developing skin cancer.
How skin lightening products work
There are two main chemicals found in most skin lightening products – Hydroquinone or Mercury.
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 in the form of Mercury Chloride & Ammoniated Mercury is carcinogenic (cancer-producing). They appear on the list of toxic substances that can only be purchased via pharmacies with prescribed labels of toxicity.
Both products perform a similar process. In the short term they will initially cause the skin to lighten by inhibiting the production of melanin. Without melanin formation in the basal layer, no brown pigmentation will be visible. The long term effects, however, are those that must be addressed. The long term effects of using skin lightening products include the following:
Hydroquinone or Mercury applied to the skin in the longer term actually react with ultra violet rays and re-oxidise, leading to more pigmentation and premature ageing. More products are then applied in an attempt to correct the darker blotchy appearance. These are the beginnings of a vicious cycle. By altering the skins natural structure and inhibiting the production of Melanin, the skin’s natural protection, the skin is more susceptible to skin cancer. Prolonged use of Hydroquinone thickens collagen fibres damaging the connective tissues. The result is rough blotchy skin leaving it with a spotty appearance.
Mercury 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, the chemical can damage vital organs and lead to liver and kidney failure and mercury poisoning.
Are these products legal?
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 preparations with Hydroquinone due to the long term effects as it accumulates in the tissues. The UK Cosmetic Product Regulations 1978 prohibits the use of Mercury compounds.
However, 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 sold over the counter, without a prescription, in the UK and the US.
This does not mean that you should never use hydroquinone, just that you should understand that this compound has deleterious effects and should never be used ‘lightly’ (pun unintended). Always use the same under prescription from a good dermatologist or plastic surgeon, if at all.
Safer alternatives for skin lightening:
- Arbutin: It is considered to be a safe ingredient for external use because it does not have any side effects like unpleasant odour, toxicity or stimulation like Hydroquinone.
- Vitamin C: It is an effective ingredient for preventing aging skin. It helps in synthesizing collagen in the body.
- Licorice: This ingredient can easily inhibit UV-B induced pigmentation and other skin complications with ease.
- Kojic Acid: It is one of the most important bleaching agents, which can easily inhibit the production of Melanin in our body. It can be included in the diet as well.
- Vitamin A: This constituent should be used for treating damaged pelt complications such as vitiligo, hyper pigmentation, melasma, skin infection etc.