Skin whitening has been going on in Asia for centuries, tracing its days back to ancient Japan and China. To many cultures, having a porcelain, milky complexion represents beauty and nobility. Historically, the story was that the poor women who had to work in the fields and were exposed to the sun had darker skin, while wealthy women were able to stay indoors, keeping their skin pale.
Women in this part of the world often feel immense pressure to have pale skin. For example, surveys show that more than 75% of men in Malaysia equate pale skin with beauty.
The quest to achieve white skin has a long history and continues today, even though research shows us that the ingredients used in skin whitening are dangerous–even deadly. In fact, according to Global Industry Analysts, the skin whitening industry may be a $76 million a year industry by the end of 2015.
Ironically, in the United States, women with a glowing tan are often viewed as more beautiful or more healthy. We know that this extreme is dangerous as well because tanning caused by UV exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer and premature aging. The opposite is the case for many women in Southeast Asia who are literally dying to have milky white skin.
From using products with toxic ingredients to actually putting household bleach on the skin, many women are truly desperate to achieve this beauty ideal. I first became aware of this "trend" 15 years ago. I remember it clearly, as I was doing the makeup of a beautiful bride on a chilly May day. We had done a practice run weeks before and I found it peculiar that she was unhappy with her flawless, slightly olive skin. She kept telling me, "I want your color skin." I was uber pale. Porcelain, to be more accurate. She said that she would be beautiful if she had white skin.
A typical skincare cream cannot lighten or whiten the skin. There are specific ingredients in these products which are potent enough to be able to alter the melanin in the skin. The products are called “skin bleaching” creams with good reason: the ingredients are strong enough and harmful enough to alter the color of your skin.
Hydroquinone is one popular ingredient used in skin whitening creams. It is now under great scrutiny by the FDA and is banned in the European Union, Japan, and Australia amid concerns that it may cause cancer.
Mercury has also been found in multiple skin whitening products. Over the past two years, creams around the world have been tested, revealing high levels of mercury. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage.” In addition to kidney damage, mercury can cause psychological issues, damage to the nervous system, and even death.
Glutathione is now being used intravenously to whiten the skin. While this ingredient is often used in nutritional supplements to help with metabolism, there have been many warnings about Glutathione being injected into the bloodstream. The FDA has warned that glutathione used to whiten the skin can cause severe abdominal pain, kidney damage, and thyroid damage.
These are not the only ingredients used to whiten the skin. Heavy dosages far above the recommended level of Kojic Acid and Azelaic Acid are commonly used and are linked to cancer. Steroids are used by women in their quest to achieve what their culture deems the sign of real beauty, causing a whole host of side effects.
Until women begin to accept — and love — the skin they were born with, the epidemic of skin whitening will continue. Changing a society’s perception of beauty and educating a population on the risks also are needed to bring about real change.
Skin whitening may be an age old tradition, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t deadly.