Skin toning/lightening/bleaching/whitening is a practice that continues to affect the vast majority of Nigerian women. Enough has been said about the harmful consequences of bleaching, and by now most women who bleach know what they risk – diabetes, skin cancer, Cushing’s syndrome, hypertension, impaired wound healing, predisposition to infections, endocrine dysfunction, and localised hyper pigmentation (ochronosis). With the skin-lightening cream industry estimated to be worth over $19 billion by 2018, it seems that lightening creams are here to stay. Moreover for those women heavily invested, the benefits of being fair far outweigh the risks of being dark.
The modern skin-lightening community has moved on for the most part from the obvious use of hydroquinone and steroids onto more purportedly natural substances. While most of these natural ingredients have not have not been studied robustly in humans to ascertain their longterm lightening safety profiles, some studies have reported side-effects in people who have used them regularly over a few years.
- Kojic acid: is derived from the fungi species Aspergillus oryzae, which is known in Japenese as Koji. Kojic acid, much like other skin-lightening agents works by suppressing the production of melanin. Kojic is reportedly safe to use in cosmetic formulations at concentrations up to 2% as it does not provide a great amount of lightening and does not increase skin sensitivity . However at concentrations above this, skin sensitivity, leucoderma (depigmented patches) and allergic contact dermatitis may result. As most companies that include kojic acid in their products with the aim to lighten the skin do not disclose the amount of kojic acid in it, one can only assume that it is included at concentrations above 2%.
- Arbutin: is extracted from the bearberry plant, is also naturally found in wheat and pear skins and in the leaves of blueberries. When applied to the skin, it is broken down by the body into hydroquinone, which inhibits the production of melanin. Arbutin is therefore just a precursor of hydroquinone and over time may cause the same toxic effects associated with the application of hydroquinone directly to the skin. Arbutin is considered safe for consumers in cosmetic products at concentrations up to 2% in face creams and up to 0.5% in body lotions but it is known to cause allergic contact dermatitis with prolonged use.
- Glabridin: is extracted from licorice. It is commonly used for its anti-inflammatory properties and as a skin-lightening agent in Asia where it has a good safety profile. However, there have been reports of contact allergic dermatitis in users.
Lightening (if at all) is progressive and may take up to six months before any difference is seen when these naturally-derived agents are used at the recommended concentrations. There is a common assumption that manufactures label their products honestly, but it is a false assumption especially for the skin lightening market. Hydroquinone which not be used at concentrations above 2% without a prescription is often added at concentrations in the range of 8-15% especially when bought from unregulated companies and individuals.
If lightening is seen within a month of use of ‘natural’ products, there is a good chance that lightening agents are being used at concentrations far above the recommended amounts or that other toxic ingredients such as hydroquinone, mercury or steroids are being added to the cream.
The bottom line is that for most Nigerian women, the benefits of skin bleaching far exceeds the ‘risks’ of having dark skin. That said, a word is enough for the wise.