Business is booming in the skin lightening industry especially in Asia and Africa. WHO undertook a study to understand the extent of skin bleaching in these regions. In Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women, respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis. In 2004, nearly 40% of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners. In India, 61% of the dermatological market consists of skin lightening products.

In many countries in Africa, men and especially women with lighter skin are favored over those with darker skin, leading to better opportunities and treatment in society. Many regard fair skin as a gateway to beauty and success.

Skin lightening products come in different forms, including soaps and creams. These products are supposed to be applied to the skin to dry overnight. Women use the soap to wash their hair, arms or face or their entire body.

Hydoquinone, the skin lightening agent, found in these creams and soaps is banned in many Africa countries. South Africa, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Rwanda and recently South Sudan have taken a firm stand against these hazardous products. Sadly these products are still found readily available on shelves in markets and shops.

Hydroquinone can be safely used if it is prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist. On the other hand, hydroquinone can be abused and have adverse effects on your health.  Common side effects of hydroquinone include: mild skin irritation and sensitization (burning, stinging); dermatitis; dryness; redness and inflammatory reaction. Hydroquinone is not the only harmful ingredient in skin bleaching products. Most skin lightening products found in markets are often bootleg concoctions. The industry is not regulated therefore it is difficult to know what exactly is in the cream and at what percentage. Other ingredients may include steroids, mercury and lead.

The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage. Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy. They can also cause cancer, affect the nervous system and deform unborn babies.

Skin lightening products do not only damage bodies but also damage the environment and wild life. Mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into wastewater. The mercury then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Mercury can seriously damage the health of fish, birds and other animals that eat large quantities of fish.

The recent online movement like #MelaninPoppin is changing the perception of “the lighter skin you are, the more beautiful”. #MelaninPoppin celebrates dark skin tones. If you do decide to bleach your skin, make sure you are ready and doing it for all the right reasons. But most importantly: contact a professional before you do so.