For years, dermatologists and government agencies worldwide have been warning women not to use skin-bleaching products because many contain chemicals that pose serious health risks.
Hydroquinine, mercury and steroids are often found in skin-whitening products. Long periods of exposure to these chemicals can produce adverse side effects including acne, burns, discoloration, skin thinning and can cause damage to the central nervous system and organ failure, according to health experts.
In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of mercury in skin-bleaching and lightening products and regularly updates its website with warnings about skin-lightening products containing mercury. Similar bans have been issued in Asia and African countries. For several years, the World Health Organization has issued warnings about the harmful effects of using these products.
Yet despite the bans and warnings, skin-lightening products containing toxic chemicals – such as mercury — still fly off the shelves at ethnic beauty shops and bodegas in the U.S and worldwide.
In Connecticut, Dr. Mona Shahriari, associate director of clinical trials at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, described the effects of skin bleaching.
“These agents are not absorbed systemically to a noticeable degree, so there are no known systemic side effects,” Shahriari said. “Prolonged use on the skin can lead to ochranosis, which is a paradoxical darkening of the skin (instead of the intended lightening).”
She said that about 30 to 40 percent of African Americans, Latina American and Asian American women use skin-lightening products. She also said that there are patients who dismiss the health risks entirely when informed about them.
Skin-bleaching products are widely available on the Internet, where sales in 2015 topped $10 billion, according to Global Industry Analysts, a market research company.
In Nigeria, 75 percent of women use skin-bleaching products, the highest use in the world, according to Global Industry. Skin-lightening products are regularly used in other countries as well: Senegal (27 percent), South Africa (35 percent), China (40 percent) and Togo (59 percent), Global Industry says.
Throughout history lighter complexion has been seen as more desirable, a symbol of wealth and social status. Queen Elizabeth I was known to use ceruse, a poisonous paste made from vinegar and white lead, to achieve the very fair, pale complexion popular among the wealthy at the time.
A takepart.com article, White Makes You Win, states that society has convinced women around the world with darker complexions that success, even attractiveness, is reserved for those with lighter complexions.
Dermatologist Elidje Ekra from the Treichville University Hospital in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said in the article, “In our cultures, some people think women with light skin are the most beautiful. This beauty standard … pushes many girls to de-pigment their skin.
“What we see in the media is the lighter one’s skin is, the better one’s life,” she said.
Liz Colon is a student at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, New Haven.