How did we get here? The short and long-term implications of skin bleaching.
Who does not want to be beautiful, attractive, and noticeable? Especially when there is a marked line of what beauty is supposed to look like all around you. My social upbringing exhibited the essence of beauty as a lighter skin tone complexion. A phenomenon which by the 21st century was termed yellow bone in South Africa. In other countries like Jamaica where skin bleaching practices are also prevalent, they call this browning.
Whilst in some other countries, skin bleaching or lightening products have been publicly banned like in Ghana, and Rwanda. The marketing and advertising media says otherwise from their portrayal of light skinned women. Needless to say, skin bleaching in the 21st century has become a norm for our generation. And this is concerning given the adverse effects these products have. Both short and long-term.
What is skin bleaching?
Skin bleaching is a process of using creams, soaps, injections, pills, and formulations that have melanin-inhibiting mechanisms in them to brighten the skin or to get a lighter skin complexion.
The active ingredients used in these products include high doses of Mercury, hydroquinone, corticosteroids and methadone. These ingredients are normally prescribed in lower doses for a short duration of time for the treatment of various skin and medically diagnosed conditions.
Why do people bleach their skin?
Before the appearance of Lupita Nyong’o on-screen, and other Phenomenal black women who embraced beauty outside the standards set out by the societal and political systems. The beauty I knew was light skin, straight hair, and lean. These were features depicted in the media and portrayed by my older sisters, neighbors, and role models.
Where I come from, skin bleaching is a sensitive topic just like mental health. But that doesn’t mean that this topic shouldn’t be discussed, addressed, and vented for awareness. Especially when it is happening both in private and public spaces.
Is this trend psychological or political?
Skin bleaching is not new and exclusive to South African women of colour. The scientific studies contend that it is interlaced with the colonial predisposition of the 1960s and the early 1980s. During these periods racial discrimination was openly and actively on show towards people of colour.
To have a certain pass, black people would bleach their skin to look more brown so that they could be given a coloured skin tone/complexion. Similarly, coloured people would do the same to get pale skin to look more like white people.
But that is not all, the development of technology made it even worse, especially in the 1970s when colour printing emerged. Ad agencies and advertisements would entice their customers by displaying women with features that they believed (and made consumers believe) were beautiful. This was usually women who were light or fair skinned with straight hair. This type of beauty is still often shown as the norm today which has lead to continued psychological effects.
What are the harmful effects caused by skin brightening/whitening/lightening products?
Mercury (Hg). Mercury is a small element that, because of its molecular weight, does not go through a process of breakdown completely when in the body. The consequences of that may be irreversible and lethal.
The World Health Organization emphasized the adverse health effects of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams and soaps. These include: kidney damage, skin rashes, redness, skin discoloration, and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, as well as mercury poisoning.
Hydroquinone is the most known commonly used active ingredient for skin bleaching. Adverse effects of high dose and long term use of hydroquinone (which works by inhibiting the production of melanocytes) on the skin may include exogenous ochronosis, bone marrow malignancy, skin irritation, and redness (especially for people with dry and sensitive skin).
Corticosteroids are readily available in the pharmacies and are usually prescribed dermatologically for conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, alopecia areata, and photosensitive reaction alone or in conjunction with other medicines.
When used continuously at higher doses and for a prolonged duration, corticosteroids may cause your skin to lose elasticity. Other effects include bruising easily, dermatitis, hyperpigmentation, and occasional acneiform eruptions.
It is important to read labels and use products with assured and controlled quality. If you are not sure of the ingredients of the products you are using and are experiencing problems with your skin, consult a doctor or dermatologist as soon as possible. And try to remember that all skin tones are beautiful.