Many of the ingredients in skin bleaching products are toxic to the individual and to the environment. Skin lightening soaps and creams commonly contain mercury, hydroquinones, and steroids. All three products are toxic with mercury being the most worrisome as it enters the water supply when the person takes a bath. That water finds its way to the ground where it enters the fruits we eat, and goes to the rivers and oceans where it accumulates in the bodies of the fish we consume. Mercury can damage our organs and cause fetal malformations. Mercury exposure increases the risk for liver and brain cancer, skin scaring, neurologic abnormalities, and kidney disease.
A few countries have made cosmetic products containing mercury illegal, but the huge market for them has created places on the internet where they can be obtained. Mercury is also used in some mascaras. The US government limits the amount of mercury in cosmetic products made in the United States. The European Union has gone further and has banned its companies from selling such products in Europe. However, the European Union allows mercury containing products to be manufactured in Europe for export and these toxic products are usually sold in Africa.
According to the World Health Organization, although not all companies list their ingredients, before using a lightening cream, read its label for mercury containing compounds like: Mercury, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercury chloride, ammoniated mercury, amide chloride of mercury, quicksilver, cinnabaris (mercury sulfide), hydrargyria oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide). One must also note thatdirections to avoid contact with other metals after use can be an indication that the product contains mercury. Even mercury vapor is poisonous exposing everyone who breathes the air near a person who has mercury on their skin.
The New York City Department of Health examined 10 lightening creams and found that some of them had up to 14,000 times the allowable legal limit of mecury. In April of 2018, the City Government of New York notified all doctors in the city to warn their patients against using any cosmetic lightening creams.
Skin bleaching products, also called skin lighteners, often contains hydroquinone, a known carcinogen banned in many countries. Some countries have limited its concentration in bleaching products to 2%, an arbitrarily chosen percentage. The 2% limit was chosen not because that percentage is known to be safe but as a compromise with manufactures to help limit the use of the chemical. The steroid commonly used in skin lightening creams can cause skin erosion and can predispose the skin to infections.
Medical skin bleaching carries less risk. The use of creams and lotions to lighten hyperpigmented skin caused by acne scars shows how these products can be applied to a restricted portion of the body without causing much harm. Unfortunately, social skin bleaching requires whole body application of these creams. In general, the more surface area exposed to these products the more risk of adverse health effects.
Skin bleaching products work in different ways. Two of the most common ways is by preventing melanin from being made, or by preventing its transport to the keratinocytes. Mercury blocks the production of melanin from the amino acid tyrosine, a product found in foods containing proteins. Hydroquinone works by preventing the transport of melanin from the melanocytes to the top layer of the skin. Steroids work by thinning the skin. These already dangerous products can be made even more toxic after they are altered by the end-user. Several Haitian informants have told us that skin lighting creams are made more potent when mixed with permanent before applying the concoction to the skin.
More recently, glutathione has been used both orally and intravenously to lighten the skin. It works by interfering with melanin production. Although unrelated to mercury, its safety is unproven. In the Philippines where intravenous treatment is popular, glutathione use has been linked to skin abnormalities, thyroid disturbances, and kidney dysfunction. It usually takes 10 treatments to see results and the clients must return every few months to maintain their newly acquired skin tone.
In the process of providing to customers their desired skin tone which may enhance their self-image, the companies that produce and market these products also contribute to reinforcing social prejudices damaging to the self-image of those not using their products. Beyond that, they are contributing to intoxicating the environment for the rest of humanity and for other living species.
Everyone has the right to treat their skin however they want so long as they do not imperil the life of their unborn child, endanger the health of the general public, and contaminate the environment. At a minimum, skin bleaching products should come with a health warning and at a maximum, they should be banned until the agents used are demonstrated to be safe for the individual, the public, and the environment.
Aneri Pattani. A new skin lightening Procedure is short on evidence. The New York Times, August 28 2017
Arnfinn Hykkerud Steindal and Johan Moan. The evolution of different skin colours. Solar radiation and human health. 2008
Ellen E. Quillen and others. Shades of complexity: New perspectives on the evolution and genetic architecture of human skin. American Journal of Physiology and Anatomy 2018:1-23
Emma K.T. Benn and others. Skin bleaching and dermatologic health of African and Afro-Caribbean populations in the US: New directions for methodologicallly rigorous multidisciplinary and culturally sensitive research. Dermatology Therapy (2016) 6:453-459
Hermal Shroff and others. Skin Color, Cultural Capital, and Beauty Products: An investigation of the use of skin fairness products in Mumbai, India. Frontiers in Public Health. January 23, 2018, volume 5, Article 385
House of Parliament. Skin lightening treatments. Parliamentary office of Science and technology. England, 2013
Hywel Williams. Skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone: The case for a temporary ban. British Medical Journal. October 17, 1992
Liang Deng and Shuhua Xu. Adaptation of human skin color in various populations. Hereditas. 2018, 155:1
Lynne Eagle and others. Ethical issues in the marketing of skin lightening products. Anzmac 2014 Proceedings. 2014: pages 74-81
New York City Department of Health. Health Department warns New Yorkers about skin-lightening creams and medicated soaps that contain dangerous levels of mecury. April 6,2016
Nina G. Jablonski and George Chaplin. The colours of humanity: The evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B 372: 20160349
Patrice Jones and others. The Vitamin D -Folate Hypothesis as an evolutionary model for skin pigmentation: An update adn integration of current ideas. Nutrients. April 3o, 2018
Preventing Disease through healthy environments: Mecury in skin lightening products. World Health Organization. 2011
Siti Zulaikha Rusmadi and others. Preliminary study on the skin lightening practice and health symptoms among female students in Malaysia. Journal of Enviromental and Public Health. Volume 2015, Article ID 591790, 6 pages