Harmful effects of chemical skin bleaching and some safer alternatives

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As trends go, it doesn’t take long before one that has taken root elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere comes home to roost in Guyana. A somewhat disturbing one is the increasingly widespread practice of skin bleaching, as we are bombarded with lightening celebrities and cheap creams on the shelves. For clarification, we are not talking about using a bit of Ambi on the neck, underarms or other dark areas here and there but more about the kind of fervent whole body bleaching that many have adopted to change their complexion entirely. How common is the practice? – You have only to look around at friends, co-workers family members and random persons in the street. This subject is a controversial one and this article could delve into colonialism, shadism, colourism and a variety of “isms” as awkward questions about identity and race are raised, but the motive here is NOT to examine why we as a society even want to lighten our skin in the first place but instead to show how dangerous this practice is.
It is now known that chemical bleaching can lead to serious skin and health conditions which include: permanent skin bleaching, thinning of skin, uneven colour loss, leading to a blotchy appearance, redness and intense irritation, dark grey spots, skin cancer, acne, increase in appetite and weight gain, osteoporosis, neurological and kidney damage due to high level of mercury used in the creams, psychiatric disorders, asthma, liver damage and severe birth defects in children born to mothers who abuse certain chemicals.

One of the most public proponent of bleaching is Jamaican singing star Vybz Kartel, who is idolised by many Guyanese youth especially in the more urban areas. The singer’s complexion has dramatically lightened in recent years and he even sings about his bleaching: ‘Look Pon Me’ contains the lines: “Di girl dem love off mi brown cute face, di girl dem love off mi bleach-out face.”
His claims that he used cake-soap (laundry soap) to bleach his skin were debunked by the Jamaican manufacturer of the product, Blue Power Group, and then he confessed that he actually used his own special concoction.
In spite of the fact that he is awaiting trial in connection with the murder of a promoter in Kingston in July – as well as for illegal possession of a firearm and some drugs-related offences, he launched a range of men’s cosmetics in October 2011, which included a variety of ‘Skin brightening’ items.
His countrymen though are waking up to the issue and health officials are running warnings on local radio stations, putting up posters in schools, holding talks and handing out literature about the dangers.
According to David McFadden writing in the Jamaica Star, April 4, 2011, the phenomenon has reached such dangerous proportions”, a woman started to bleach her baby as reported to McFadden by a Dermatologist.
Keep in mind that even though a cream is sold over the counter, it is not necessarily safe. Hydroquinone, a common ingredient of many of the creams in Guyana, (check ‘Precious’, Symba’ and ‘Septol’) for example has long been linked to a disfiguring condition called ochronosis that causes a splotchy darkening of the skin and may even leave a web of stretch marks across the users face!
The proposed ban by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fizzled in 2006 and creams containing up to two percent hydroquinone are recognised as safe and effective but Hydroquinone was banned in Japan, the European Union, and Australia, due to concerns about health risks.
The following will show some of the most common bleaching compound/techniques and how they work. They are loosely grouped in categories of unsafe, somewhat safe and safe.
Some common skin bleaching agents and how they work

Melanin is a complex polymer derived from the amino acid tyrosine and is responsible for determining skin and hair colour, depending on the concentration present. So the more melanin you have, the darker you will be.
Most skin-lightening treatments, which can reduce or block some amount of melanin production, are aimed at inhibiting e. Many treatments use a combination of topical lotions or gels containing melanin-inhibiting ingredients along with a sunscreen, and a prescription retinoid. There are a variety of chemicals used and they work in different ways but the most common ones as pointed out by Wikipedia.com fall into two classes those that inhibit melanin production and those that work in post-melanin synthesis. Those from the previous category include:

TRETINOIN (also known as all-trans retinoic acid) is used mainly for skin discolorations. Negative side effect: Users of tretinoin have to avoid sunlight, as using tretinoin makes the skin more sensitive to UVA and UVB rays always and can have the opposite effect of darkening skin

HYDROQUINONE is a strong inhibitor of melanin production, meaning that it prevents dark skin from making the substance responsible for skin colour. Negative side effect: It has been banned in some countries (e.g. France) because of fears of a cancer risk. Hydroquinone has been shown to cause leukaemia in mice and other animals.

KOJIC ACID is a by-product in the fermentation process of malting rice for use in the manufacturing of sake, the Japanese rice wine. Some research shows kojic acid to be effective for inhibiting melanin production, but it is an unstable ingredient in cosmetic formulations Negative side effect: controversial research has suggested that kojic acid may have carcinogenic properties in large doses. Other further studies show that kojic acid is not carcinogenic, but can cause allergic contact dermatitis and skin irritation.

MERCURY- Many skin whiteners contain toxic mercury such as mercury (II) chloride or ammoniated mercury as the active ingredient. Negative side effect: Accumulates n skin and it can have the opposite results in the long term. Some studies suggest that long-term use could cause systemic absorption that leads to tissue accumulation of the substance. It was banned in Europe (1976) and in the USA (1990) for purpose of skin whitening.

Possibly safer alternatives
ARBUTIN is derived from the leaves of bearberry, cranberry, mulberry or blueberry shrubs, and also is present in most types of pears. It can have melanin-inhibiting properties. Arbutin and other plant extracts are considered safe alternatives to commonly used de-pigmenting agents to make the skin fairer. Medical studies have shown the efficiency of arbutin for skin lightening.

AZELAIC ACID is a component of grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley. Azelaic acid is used to treat acne, but there also is research showing it to be effective for skin discolorations. It belongs to a class of medication called dicarboxylic acids. It works by killing acne bacteria that infect skin pores. Azelaic acid has been used for treatment of skin pigmentation including melasma and post inflammatory hyper pigmentation, particularly in those with darker skin types. It has been recommended as an alternative to hydroquinone (HQ). As a tyrosinase inhibitor, azelaic acid reduces synthesis of melanin.
NIACINAMIDE is claimed to be a much safer alternative when applied topically for skin or genitalia whitening. According to research by Procter & Gamble, a cosmetics company, niacinamide has no adverse side-effects. It also promotes acne reduction, increases skin moisture, and reduces fine wrinkles.

Homemade ways to naturally lighten skin:

1. Papaya Soap. Using it regularly will lighten your skin. Lather it to your skin for 3 minutes.

2. Lemon juice and yogurt once a day is excellent mild bleach.

3. Turmeric: grind up “face turmeric” with olive oil and chickpea flour

4. Milk: Milk is a natural skin bleacher, pour some Milk into a bowl, grab a towel dip it in the bowl and rub it generously around your face.
5. Lemon. Cut a lemon into 2 halves. Rub it gently on your face and neck. Wash it after 10-20 minutes. Doing it regularly will cleanse your skin and slowly start lightening it.

6. Oatmeal and tomato juice. Mix equal parts of oatmeal and tomato juice. Apply this mixture to your skin and allow it to settle for at least half an hour before rinsing it off from your skin thoroughly.

7. Exfoliate. This will get rid of the old tanned cells and make way for new, cells!
Sources: www. wikipedia.com, www. Jamaicastar.com, www. beauty and Grooming.htm, www. how to Lighten Skin Naturally _ Skin So Bold.htm
Written By Michelle Gonsalves