Toxic Skin Lightening
Understand How Skin Whitening is Bad For you
Skin whitening is all the rage in Asian countries like the Philippines, where the most popular actresses are light skinned, thin-nosed and appear in the ads for products that promise pale skin. “We’re bombarded with advertisements like that every day. Every beauty product in the Philippines has a lightening aspect. Even lipstick promises to make dark upper lips more pink,” said Anne Larracas from Quezon City near Manila.
Products in the category called “skin fading/skin lighteners” are among the most toxic cosmetics in the Skin Deep database. Many contain hydroquinone, which works as a skin lightener by decreasing the production of melanin pigments in the skin. The chemical — a confirmed animal carcinogen that is toxic to the skin, brain, immune system and reproductive system — is banned in the European Union but allowed in products sold in the US in concentrations of up to 2%. The US Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel warns the chemical is unsafe for use in products left on the skin, but the recommendation is sometimes ignored. Physicians Complex Skin Bleaching Cream with 2% hydroquinone, for example, advises consumers to “Apply to clean skin twice daily. Desired results are achieved with consistent use of this product.” The product, made by CosMed, contains a dozen problematic ingredients, including three chemicals with potential to increase skin cancer risk by intensifying UV exposures in deep skin layers. “Application of Physicians Complex® sunblock SPF #30 is mandatory on a daily basis,” advises the package.
In the Philippines, where there are no regulated limits, some products, such as the popular Maxi Peel by Splash Corporation, contain 4% hydroquinone. Anne Larracas has friends who use such products, and she said the effects are startling. “When you first use it, as fast as three days, the skin starts to peel and it gets really red. Then the skin gets taut, you can see the veins because it peels too much, and the peeling doesn’t stop. The skin gets lighter and lighter and thinner and thinner. Then the face starts to get light and white, but the neck is still dark, so it looks like there is a permanent foundation.” Many women don’t know they are supposed to also use sunscreen, Anne said. “It’s so sad. I don’t know why girls would like to whiten their skin.”
According to dermatologists, skin color is genetic and no chemical can permanently lighten skin — although hydroquinone can produce temporary whitening effects, as can the heavy metals chromium and mercury, both of which have been detected in skin whitening creams sold in Asia. After the SK-II incident in China, media organizations in Hong Kong tested a range of skin whitening creams and reportedly found chromium in products made by Clinique, Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Max Factor, Lancôme and Shiseido. Mercury has also been detected in several products made in China and Taiwan. When a patient turned up in his office with mercury poisoning, Dr. Christopher Lam, chair at the department of chemical pathology at Hong Kong’s Prince of Wales Hospital, examined her skin whitening cream and found mercury levels 65,000 times higher than amounts allowed in the US. Follow-up product tests conducted by Lam found mercury in eight of 38 skin whitening creams made in China and Taiwan. Some of the products were labeled “mercury free.”
Nevertheless, the “thriving bihaku (white beauty) boom remains one of the most significant driving forces for overall growth as manufacturers cater to the Asian preference for a fair complexion,” reported Euromonitor. “According to leading industrial sources, up to 60% of Japanese women use skin whitening products in their daily regime, presenting manufacturers with a strong opportunity for continued growth.” The major players have sought to maximize sales by offering “complete skin whitening regimes, comprising not only of moisturizers, but also cleansers, toners, day and night nourishers and even facial cleansing wipes.” Sales are particularly promising in China, which has recorded double digit increases in recent years. The country is now the second largest market by volume for Procter & Gamble, and will someday be first if Daniela Riccardi, president of P&G Greater China, has her way. “Maybe it will take 10 years, but my staff, my company and I are very clear that it will eventually happen,” the P&G executive told the China Daily. “Now our strategies are designed to touch as many customers in China as possible, step by step,” Riccardi said. “Our future objective is to try to reach towns and villages where there are hundreds of millions of people.
Not everyone is thrilled with the market potential. “I’m so pissed about this whitening stuff. It’s everywhere,” said Anne Larracas from the Philippines. “Every actress we have is light skinned, so when you’re a monena like me, dark skinned, you have to use whitening products to become famous.” Her cousin, a plastic surgeon, keeps teasing her to get a nose job. “The beauty stuff is symbolic of how we’ve been brainwashed about Western culture. It’s the best thing to look Caucasian and blonde, with pretty light skin. And it’s not just about beauty products, it’s about clothes, iPods, books, TV shows, everything,” Anne said. “What needs to happen is that we have to reconnect with who we really are.