The dangers and desires of skin lightening creams
By Katy Newton
Skin lightening cream. Upon first hearing about this product, the most common reaction can easily be described as “WTF?!” The words “skin lightening” often bring to mind the magical transformation that Michael Jackson went through in order to switch races. Therefore, many wrongly assume that skin lightening creams are weird, dangerous, creams created by a mad scientist. Their purpose can often seem controversial and confusing. In reality, skin lightening creams can be used for a variety of purposes … none of which include “pulling an MJ.”
We’ve all seen the Proactiv infomercials. Jessica Simpson and Katy Perry explain to us the wonders of clear skin and how we can achieve stardom with our skin by using Proactiv. The brand is best known for their acne-clearing products.
However, delve deeper into their offerings and you’ll see a Skin Lightening Lotion for $22. The product is described as containing “hydroquinone to gradually fade troublesome hyperpigmentation caused by acne, sun exposure and aging.” Head over to your local pharmacy, and you’ll see even more of these lotions popping up, with the intent of lightening acne scars and erasing sun damage. One of these products, SH-18 Skin Lightening Body Lotion, promises that it is “a very effective bleaching care for the body.”
Sorry, did you just mistake my body for something that should be thrown in the laundry along with those other things that got stained from that wild party last night? Why would I want to moisturize my face with a product with hydro-something in it? What is that anyway?
Hydroquinone is in fact the skin-bleaching ingredient used in these lotions.
Currently, the chemical is allowed in concentrations of 2 percent (with a prescription, 4 percent without) in personal care products in the United States. The packaging on these products will most likely fail to tell the consumer that the chemical has been banned in Japan, Europe and Australia. Why ban the bleach? Studies performed on rodents (hey, rodents have blemishes too) show “some evidence” that the chemical may act as a carcinogen. Basically, it may or may not cause cancer… no biggie. As long as my acne scar is healed by next Friday, who cares about potentially getting The Big C.
Due to their title of “skin lightening” creams, the chemicals such as hydroquinone work by reducing or blocking melanin production. Think back to biology class, and you’ll remember that melanin is the pigment that gives each of us our unique skin tone. Some of us have an overwhelming amount of melanin, either naturally or artificially (I’m looking at you, tanorexics). Others were not blessed in that region and often get mistaken for Casper the Friendly Ghost.
By reducing the amount of melanin, the lotions are raising our exposure to UVA and UVB rays in the skin, which as we all know by now, is a straight shot to the road to skin cancer.
But enough about cancer. Let’s lighten the mood with some good-ole irony.
Hydroquinone has also been linked with the skin disorder ochronosis. Ironic how?
Ochronosis, aside from affecting the skeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory and urinary systems, also affects the skin in that—wait for it—it makes the skin darker by causing black and blue skin discoloration.
Skin-lightening creams may actually make me darker? Say what? Ochronosis causes cartilage to become pigmented, and dark patches of this pigmentation may show up on the person’s face. So, then, I need more skin-lightening cream to lighten the skin that became darker from my original bout with skin-lightening cream. Cool!
So now that we’ve successfully covered what skin lightening creams can be used for on the face, it’s time to move a little farther down south. Yep, bleach can do wonders for the fine china. Genital and anal bleaching exist. This form of lightening is obviously intended to lighten the apparently “typical” darker pigmentation around these regions. Not surprisingly, the first customers to purchase these products were adult film stars, dancers and models with darker pigmentation in the anal and vaginal region.
Adult video star Tabitha Stevens had her anal bleaching televised to millions when she appeared on E!’s Dr. 90210. Brazilian wax customers also found redemption in these products because clients were embarrassed by their dark skin once their hair was removed.
With companies such as Divine Derriere, which offers a wide array of vaginal and anal bleaching products, the demand must be spreading. Aging, hormonal changes from pregnancy and, my personal favorite, “discharging feces,” are all things that anal bleaching can help with. Done for cosmetic purposes, anal bleaching intends to make the anus blend better with the surrounding area. Divine Derriere describes many of their customers as being adult film stars who have achieved “beautiful, pink, clean-looking, attractive anal/vaginal skin.” Sound enticing? Even if you are growing pink at the thought of ordering these products, rest assured: Divine Derriere takes this into consideration and ships the products with “very discreet packaging.”
Whatever the purpose, skin lightening creams attempt to conceal something about your appearance. Some people, such as women in Asia, buy into the “pale is the new tan” look of models in fashion magazines and use the creams to achieve a paler complexion. Here in the United States, the creams, aside from the uses in the adult video industry, are mostly used for fading scars and blemishes. Yes, acne scars can be über-annoying, but most of the time they fade away on their own, or many people resort to just using concealer. Would you really want to put yourself at such great risk by using these creams just to hide a small red spot? Not to sound cheesy, but don’t all of our scars represent a story anyway?
Author John Steinbeck wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent “To be alive at all is to have scars.” Take a cue from that and don’t let your stories (or actual skin tone) fade into the background.
Katy Newton is a freshman journalism major who is the fairest of them all. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.