The Dark World of Skin Lightening

Millions of people across the world want to make their skin lighter - but the treatments they use can be dangerous

Amber Liaqat February 20, 2020

Millions of people across the world want to make their skin lighter- but the treatments they use can be dangerous. For people, skin lightening creams are just another part of their daily skincare routine. Billions are spent advertising these creams not just to women but also men across the world. It can be said that the advertisements for whitening cream have explicitly linked fairer skin to beauty, romance and even career success. There are two types of whitening creams - those that “lighten” and those that “bleach”. Bleaching creams contain harsh chemicals that inhibit the production of melanin and rapidly make the skin whiter. Lightening creams, however, don’t necessarily contain these chemicals but will promise to whiten the skin with long term use. At worst, they can leave the users with lasting, sometimes irreparable damage to their skin.

Dermatologists on aesthetic choice

and racial prejudice

Dr Kamran Qureshi, Aesthetic Physician

Dr Kamran Qureshi based in Lahore has a very simple take on skin lightening agents and creams. ”As long as skin lightening creams do not contain mercury and steroids it would not make any difference in making the skin light but if it does contain mercury then it becomes a very tricky situation, it makes the skin layer thin and there is a very good chance of having pigmentation over a period of time. In Pakistan, over the counter creams are not regulated as such or are PDA approved and the ingredients are of a great concern but doctors do prescribe creams which are backed by good manufacturing companies. If the product doesn’t display the ingredients at all, then don’t use it. Speak to your dermatologist or GP if you have any concerns about your skin tone and they will be able to advise accordingly.  I still suggest improving your skin texture and complexion by getting good hydra-facial and looking after your diet instead of using whitening creams”.

Aspiring to Fair Skin in South Asia 

In South Asia particularly, fair skin is considered as social markers of aristocratic lineage and class allegiance. White skin has a colonial notion of power and superiority over dark skin. Even matrimonial columns and websites stress on fairer-skinned clients as more desirable than dark skin toned clients. In short, associating white skin to wealth and desirability is not new in south Asia.  The belief and practice to have lighter skin has been rooted from ancient times. For instance, Chinese myth believes that pearls can lighten one’s complexion by taking a small amount of pearl powder together with hot water every day. In the West, aristocrats and rich people in the 17th and 18th centuries kept their skin white by applying lead oxide powder to their faces to differentiate themselves from the working class.

Dr Zarqa Surharwardy Taimur, Aesthetic Dermatologist

Renowned dermatologist, Doctor Zarqa also does not recommend using whitening creams. “Use of whitening creams is the most commonly used method but most creams have steroids and mercury and have negative effects on skin, they are toxic for skin and eventually develop skin pigmentation, the skin becomes wrinkly especially around the eye area and doctor can tell in a glance that the patient has been using skin lightening creams. I would suggest a treatment which is most popular, intravenous injections of Glutathione which is a natural and master antioxidant which is present in our body and almost all living cells, it fights with the free radicals, and detoxifies the body. Glutathione also helps to reduce the dark melanin pigments, and turns them into a lighter pigment, this leads to the skin becoming fair and brighter. Glutathione is available as tablets and injections. However, the tablets do not get absorbed well, and injections contain Glutathione and other vitamins that are injected directly in the veins i.e. blood stream and gets absorbed faster than the skin whitening pills and it also contains a higher quantity of Glutathione than skin whitening pills, therefore skin whitening injections are a preferred option for skin whitening treatment”.

The Power of Advertising

The preference to have white skin is the leading force behind the the skin lightening industry. This phenomenon was reflected in the domination of skin lightening products in the Asian skincare market with 60 percent of sales. Skin lightening products are readily available from major cosmetics companies, from local convenience stores, and widely over the internet. As of last year, the business of skin lightening and bleaching was estimated to be worth between £8billion and £15billion, with multinational beauty conglomerates cashing in on its popularity in South Asia and West Africa, in Nigeria, as many as 70 percent of women admit using bleaching creams regularly.

Alarming Affects

Many skin lightening creams contain the bleaching agent hydroquinone and also contain mercury. Hydroquinone, described as “the biological equivalent of paint stripper”, can remove the top layer of skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer, and cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Mercury can cause similar life-threatening health problems. Consumers should always check the ingredients of their skin creams, be suspicious of very low prices which are likely to indicate the lotion is fake and potentially harmful, and never use a product containing hydroquinone.


Fareeda | 4 years ago | Reply When people can go to extreme lengths to change their facial features , colour hair etc to look good or fit in society , why not just skin colour. its their skin their money their wish. Don;t blame the products or commercial advertisements, they are merely catering to the demands .
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