In Asia, Africa and South America, the pervasiveness of fair-skinned beauties in the media, as well as the cultural preference towards lighter skin has fuelled public demand for skin lightening products. The tendency of pigmented skin to be more prone to developing hyperpigmentation has also contributed to this demand. In Asia alone, nearly 2 out of 5 women have admitted to using skin lightening creams. In this multi-million dollar industry, big brands such as Olay and L’oreal often find themselves competing with fly-by-night operators packaging their products in home ‘factories’. There are literally hundreds of whitening products flooding the market of these countries, and in most of them, regulation is either very lax or non-existent.
Many consumers in these countries have tried whitening products from international, high-end brands, chiefly because of their reputation for safety and quality, only to discover that they have effectively thrown their money away on products who’s active ingredients are so diluted, they do nearly nothing in terms of lightening the skin or alleviating hyperpigmentation problems. In the end, these consumers often resort to lesser-known and uncertified skin lightening products that promise fast results at very low prices.
There are indeed many cheap skin lightening products that produce fast results . However, consumers often find themselves paying a much higher price later, in the form of permanent skin damage, or worse, organ damage and skin cancer. This is because such products use dangerous chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury as their active ingredient. These ingredients are prevalent in cheap skin lightening products because of the low cost of the ingredients – hydroquinone in particular, is far cheaper compared to other safer melanin-inhibitors such as licorice extract and kojic acid.
Mercury or hydroquinone will initially cause the skin to lighten by inhibiting production of melanin. Without melanin formation, no brown pigmentation will be visible. This produces the much-vaunted “instant lightening” results. However, the long-term effects of these two chemicals are not so good. Mercury or hydroquinone has been known to cause blotchiness, uneven skin tone, easily sunburnt skin, peeling skin, increased hyperpigmentation, thickened skin, large pores, itchiness, redness, dark patches, light pink patches, and signs of premature aging such as lines and wrinkles.
That’s not the worst of it. Since both hydroquinone and mercury are carcinogenic ingredients, long-term use can cause skin cancer. Mercury in particular can cause liver and kidney failure, as well as damage to the nervous system. Mercury is also extremely toxic to unborn children, and pregnant mothers using mercury-containing creams risk giving birth to babies with brain damage and other deformations.
The use of mercury in skincare has been banned from most countries. Hydroquinone has been banned from the UK since 2001 and has been recently banned in Asian countries like Malaysia. In the US however, skincare products containing less than 2% of hydroquinone are still sold over the counter. The banning or restriction of these ingredients in many countries does not stop manufacturers from illegally importing these ingredients and using them in their products. Some crucial signs that a skincare product might contain these dangerous chemicals is the absence of ingredient listings for the product, or the absence of any certification from the local cosmetics regulation board.
So the next time you go out shopping for skin lightening or whitening products, make sure that the ingredients are printed on the product box or container. More importantly, ensure that the product has been certified by the cosmetics regulation board of the country of manufacture.