The Truth About Skin Bleaching: Dangers, Risks, Downsides
What if we lived in a world where we saw skin browning soaps on TV? Imagine grocery store shelves lined up with products that promised tanned skin in just a matter of days. Sound far-fetched?
This was the concept behind comedian Chai Fonacier’s viral commercial that parodied skin whitening products. The jolly commercial promoted the product Paks Brownening Soap, which was made with ingredients such as theobroma cacao, melanin, and the “core being of your pre-Hispanic ancestors!”
The hilarious advertisement actually pointed to a more harmful phenomenon among Filipino women: the desire to use skin bleaching products to achieve light skin. Enter gluta drips, kojic soaps, and whitening creams.
Why is skin tone bleaching so popular?
It’s not a secret that the Philippines — along with many countries in Asia — has a huge problem with colorism. Growing up, we’ve always associated beauty with white skin. This dangerous message is in the local media we consume (remember the teleserye Nita Negrita?), the passed-down beauty standards of our elders, and in the skincare industry itself.
The idea that lighter skin is more desirable has been so widespread that probably none of us had dared question it beyond the occasional “she’s beautiful, for someone with dark skin.” The addendum, however well-intended, bears the mark of decades of oppression. Being beautiful and dark skinned was never the norm, it implies.
But Filipino women and men have skin tones that are as varied as our islands. Sadly, the widespread use and marketing of skin bleaching products and skin-lightening cosmetics have made it harder for morena girls and guys to love their own skin color.
It wasn’t until recently that voices started speaking out in defense of our own skin color and against the skin whitening industry. In a podcast, Chai Fonacier talked about the lack of morena or darker-skinned representation in local television.
“Try watching TV… and just count how many fair-skinned and European-[looking] people show up every second,” said Chai. “So what does that teach people? You know? And the majority of us don’t look like that.”
She pointed to a double standard within the showbiz industry that forced dark skin women to perform twice as hard only to be half as liked as their lighter-skin counterparts. This is harmful for plenty of reasons. The European standard of beauty imposed by the media eventually worms its way into everyday society.
Light skin equals desirability and classiness: two valuable currencies. With this culture in place, could you really blame people who turn to skin bleaching in order to be seen as beautiful?
Is skin bleaching/ skin lightening dangerous?
We’ve established the motivations behind trying to achieve paler skin. Often, people with fairer skin are seen as more desirable and of a higher social class. White skin equals a better standing in society.
But is it so wrong to want a lighter skin tone? After all, people who go through lengths to lighten their skin for cosmetic purposes aren’t exactly hurting anyone.
Well, that might not be entirely true. In the Philippines, those of a darker skin tone are often mocked. Promoting skin lightening procedures as a cosmetic standard only serves to further the idea that whiter skin is more beautiful. So skin bleaching is harmful both in a medical sense and in a social sense.
Certain studies also point towards skin lightening as having a negative impact on the mental health of women with darker skin tone. One research even aimed to explore the effects of colorism on Latina and South African women. Plenty of studies have been dedicated to this phenomenon in the Journal of Women’s Dermatology.
It’s certainly hard to undo centuries of colorism. While the message conveyed by whiteness has changed over time, the standard has always been present. In the Victorian era, white women would paint their faces with lead paint in order to convey purity.
People with African and Indian ancestries aren’t exempt. A recent World Health Organization report shows that many countries, including South Asian, East Asian, and African countries, still show high use of these lightening products.
In African countries like Nigeria, 77% of the population uses skin bleaching products. Those with African descent have been a huge target of the skin whitening industry for ages, even when the act is shown to be harmful in both medical and psychosocial aspects. Even black women in America are targets of colorism, and you’ll find plenty of ads aimed toward black women that promote lighter skin.
In India, skin lightening is also a common concern. According to the founder of the Indian Women’s Dermatology Society, approximately 50% of patients every month seek treatment for concerns related to skin lightening.
What are the negative side effects of skin bleaching?
So, why exactly are researchers, dermatologists, and other healthcare professionals so concerned with the popularity of skin bleaching? Is it such a huge cause for concern?
The dangers of skin bleaching go beyond the social and psychological. They also pose severe health risks. Skin lightening products such as skin lightening creams, skin bleaching soaps, and the occasional in-clinic skin lightening treatment — especially the more accessible, cheaper ones — are sadly often unregulated.
Use of skin lighteners with unknown concentrations of active skin bleaching ingredients is incredibly dangerous and can place you under a hidden global health hazard. Side effects associated with skin bleaching agents include mercury toxicity/mercury poisoning, contact dermatitis, and steroid acne, all caused by toxic skin lightening compounds. Yikes.
That’s not to say skin bleaching as a whole is entirely dangerous. People who suffer from severe skin diseases and discoloration can safely get their skin treated with the help of a board-certified dermatologist. Under their guidance, one can appropriately lighten the skin and remove dark spots and unevenness through medically safe skin lightening practices.
It’s the chronic use and abuse of skin lightening agents over prolonged periods that we should be worried about. Often, skin bleaching treatments for cosmetic purposes aren’t safe because they haven’t been approved by the FDA to be sold over the counter.
There’s a reason for this. Skin bleaching agents like hydroquinone and retinol have plenty of adverse effects when used without the help of a board-certified dermatologist. This is because hydroquinone, even in low concentrations, is not intended to be used for more than six months. It’s super effective, to be sure, and you’ll probably see visible effects on your skin pretty quickly. But you simply can’t use it forever, or you’ll damage your skin.
Is skin bleaching permanent?
No, skin bleaching is not permanent. Even the most popular and effective skin lightening ingredients like hydroquinone don’t produce permanent results. This is because permanently whitening the skin is virtually impossible. The skin renews itself every so often and produces melanocytes which add color to your skin.
How long does skin bleaching last?
Can skin bleaching kill you?
We don’t want to sound like alarmists here. But while skin whitening products won’t necessarily kill you, there are some pretty crazy side effects. The UK’s Local Government Association has warned against use of these products, especially from “rogue retailers,” as they may contain high amounts of hydroquinone and even mercury. Skin cancers are also a possible complication, although they are very rarely reported.
In order to avoid any serious effects from your skin lightening treatment, make sure to consult with a dermatologist first. Second, if a skin whitening product doesn’t show its ingredients, it’s best to avoid it. Third, make sure to avoid “DIY” skin lightening practices that you find online. One example is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and lemon juice touted as a home remedy, but is shown to irritate the skin and eyes.
Dear readers, we cannot stress this enough: there is nothing wrong with having dark skin, and there is nothing wrong with your skin tone. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Here at Pretty Me, we’re all about doing what makes you feel good.
Part of that is loving yourself and the body you come in. So take care of it, and don’t put yourself in danger just to fit into an outdated beauty standard. Remember that your body can do so much for you, and it’s the perfect body no matter what it looks like!
Joey is an AB Psychology graduate of the University of St. La Salle – Bacolod. Her life’s passions include writing, film, and spending hours on end binge-watching fashion vloggers on Youtube.