In a world where there are numerous beauty enhancing products, it is no surprise there are products that have the ability to lighten the colour of one’s skin. In an article written by NHS UK (2016) skin bleaching or skin lightening, is defined as “a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone”. Most people who use lighteners do so to treat skin problems such as freckles, age spots, acne scars, or discoloration related to hormones according to WebMD (2016). In other words, it is a technique used to lighten naturally dark skin. Many Jamaicans use the word “tone” to simply mean to lighten the skin tone by one or two shades.
The practice of skin bleaching has existed globally for awhile, but has grown exponentially over the past few years. It is not linked to only persons of African descent, but this practice can be seen in many Asian countries as well. The Caribbean on a whole has seen a rapid increase in the number of persons who indulge in skin bleaching. Many Caribbean persons, feel the effect of colourism from an early age and are often teased about their skin tone. The practice of skin bleaching is not limited to women as quite a few men have been seen participating in this practice. Popular Jamaican Dancehall artiste Vbyz Kartel’s lyrics indicate that it is a means of appearing more attractive to the female sex – “Di gyal dem love off mi brown cute face, di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face.” Translation for my international readers “ The girls love my cute brown face, the girls love my bleached face”
In Jamaica, there has been a rocket increase in the amount of these products being sold across Jamaica from popular wholesales to beauty supply stores and salons. Many person’s have even begun selling their special concoction blended using several skin lightening creams and gels claiming that they will work in record time. Jamaican Dancehall artist Spice recently blew up the internet recently with her new single “Black People Hypocrisy” and her photos of her makeup several shades lighter. This was an excellent approach to start the conversation of colourism and how it can psychologically affect persons, who often resort to skin bleaching. Another popular trend is that women who are afraid of the adverse effects of chemical bleaching, often resort to “makeup bleaching” which is using makeup a few shades lighter.
How does skin bleaching work?
Most bleaching products contain an active or multiple active ingredients that causes a reduction in the amount of melanin being produced in that area to which the product has been applied. Melanin is the product that gives skin and hair its dark color. Reducing its quantity in the skin will make it less dark, whether it’s a scar, hyperpigmentation, or the entire face and body.
These active lightening agents affect melanin in 3 main ways. The first way is by inhibiting the activity of an enzyme known as Tyrosinase, which aids in the conversion of tyrosine (a complex amino acid) to melanin. Another way is by preventing the melanin from being deposited onto the skin. In other words, even though melanin is created its movement to the skin’s upper layer is inhibited. These active bleaching agents may also destroy melanin and melanocytes (mature melanin cells). They may even slow or even stop the production of melanin in the skin and therefore resulting in a lighter skin color.
Dangers of Skin Bleaching
Due to the intensive actions taken by most of these active ingredients to achieve skin lightening, there may be some adverse effects. These can range from skin irritation or allergic reaction to even cancer. In a Jamaica Gleaner article, written by Dr. Arusha Campbell-Chambers (2012), a list of several side effects was provided and includes skin thinning, acne, stretch marks, visible blood vessels, skin redness and irritation, easy bruising of the skin, skin darkening e.g. around the eyes and on the knuckles, sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancer and other harmful internal effects.
WebMD (2016) also gave several points as it relates to the effects of skin bleaching. They stated that prolonged use can contribute to premature aging of skin and that long-term use may increase the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure. Additionally, steroids in some skin lighteners may increase risk of skin infections, skin thinning, acne, and poor wound healing. The mostly widely used skin bleaching active ingredient is hydroquinone and may cause unwanted and untreatable skin discoloration (ochronosis).
These are just a few of the many effects that continuous use or over use of bleaching products may lead to. Several precautions can be taken as it relates to skin lightening agents on the market. WebMD highlighted the following important points:
- Make sure there is no mercury in the product. Mercury is sometimes listed under other names, such as calomel, mercuric, mercurous, or mercurio.
- Make sure an over-the-counter skin lightener with hydroquinone has no more than 2% of that chemical.
- If a label lists hydroquinone but doesn’t say how much it contains, don’t assume it’s safe to use. Some foreign products contain more hydroquinone than is allowed. and some labels may not be accurate.
Alternative to skin bleaching
In light of this grave issue, that possess so many potentially harmful effects, there is a great need to find effective but safer methods and techniques to lighten dark spots and as a result, a safer alternative to skin bleaching. Skin bleaching may sometimes stem from deeply rooted psychological issues. Juan (2014) stated that two (2) possible alternative active ingredients were ARBUTIN (derived from the leaves of bearberry, cranberry, mulberry or blueberry shrubs, and also is present in most types of pears) and AZELAIC ACID (a component of grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley). Juan (2014) also stated that there are also possible homemade options which may be just as effective. Namely: papaya soap, lemon juice and yogurt once a day, turmeric: grind up “face turmeric” with olive oil and chickpea flour, milk, lemons and Oatmeal and tomato juice.
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Campbell-Chambers, A. (2012, August 08). Skin bleaching: Who says lighter is better? Retrieved from http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120808/health/health1.htm
Juan, C. (2014, February 08). Harmful effects of chemical skin bleaching and some safer alternatives. Retrieved from http://guyanachronicle.com/2014/02/08/harmful-effects-of-chemical-skin-bleaching-and-some-safer-alternatives
NHS UK. (2016). Skin lightening. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cosmetic-treatments/skin-lightening/
Sutherland M. E. (2011). Toward a Caribbean Psychology: An African-Centered Approach. Journal of Black Studies 42(8), 1175- 1194.
WebMD. (2016, November 9). Skin Lightening Treatments. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/beauty/skin-lightening-products#1