For years, dark skinned individuals (male and female) have been conditioned to think they would look more beautiful and get better opportunities if they had fairer skin. With validation from billboards, television and magazine advertisements suggesting that light skinned individuals are more attractive, more successful and have a “glow” that endears people to them, there is an explosion in the use of skin lightening agents by Africans and Asians. This line of thought may have stemmed from colonization; where lighter skinned slaves were chosen for the more “privileged” roles, working in the houses of the white colonialists and their darker skinned counterparts were sent to the fields as laborers.
Why exactly do we have pigmentation on our skin?
Our skin color is determined by the amount pigment called melanin. Melanin is produced by cells in the skin called melanocytes. The darker the skin, the more the concentration of melanin. Skin lightening agents cause either a reduction in the concentration or production of melanin. Benefits of melanin include the protection of the skin from UV rays (seen in sunlight), thereby reducing the risks of skin cancer. This is probably the reason skin cancer is not as common in dark skinned individuals. Melanin is also present in the brain and nerves and assists in the normal functioning of these organs.
Skin lightening agents are either applied directly on the skin, swallowed as tablets/capsules, or injected directly into the veins as a “drip”. Most of these agents contain harmful chemicals like mercury, potent steroids and others which get absorbed into the skin, get carried in the blood stream to the different organs, where they cause damage. While the long term effects of steroid and mercury creams have been extensively studied and documented. The long term effects of the relatively newer agents like pills and “drips” are largely unknown, but early studies have shown that they also cause similar organ damage as the creams. A potentially life threatening reaction to these drips (Steven Johnson’s Syndrome) can develop, with affectation of the skin, genitals, mouth and eyes.
Effects of bleaching:
- Kidney: skin lightening agents can result in the excessive leaking of protein in the urine (nephrotic syndrome) and kidney failure. These patients develop swelling of the face, feet and the whole body, with a possible reduction in urinary volume.
- Liver: irreparable liver damage and eventual liver failure can be a result of long standing skin lightening.
- Endocrine problems like “Cushings disease”: characterized by hypertension, diabetes, swollen face and other changes in body habitus.
- Osteporosis: Thinning of the bones, making them frail and prone to fractures.
- Heart: heart enlargement and failure.
- Immune system: reduction in immunity and increased risk of infections
- Psychiatric complications
- Brain and nerve damage
- Severe birth defects if a pregnant woman continues using bleaching creams in pregnancy.
While it may not be possible to convince people to stop lightening their skin, it is important they know and understand the consequences of their actions and are willing to take the risk despite knowing all the problems. One wonders though, whether the external appearance is really worth endangering one’s life.