Dying to be white.

A horrible advertisement.
Pond’s Advertisement, Phnom Penh Cambodia

The Dangers of Skin Lightening Cream

When perusing the health and self-care aisle of your local supermarket or beauty supply store, it’s common to see row upon row of skin lightening and whitening creams, lotions, and foams. These are particularly prominent in Cambodia and other parts of Asia like India, Korea, and Thailand. These popular products aren’t a new addition to the beauty ritual, and celebrities, models, and peers alike share their success stories of whiter skin and show off their artificially lightened or “brightened” skin.

The harmful idea that lighter is better has caught across the globe, with an estimated $18 billion spent per year on whitening products in Asia alone. Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to skin lightening that many have yet to learn of – and where manufacturers turn a blind eye. The phrase “pain is beauty” seems to be the ideal tagline for these lightening products; it’s not so pretty when things go awry, causing pain, disfigurement, and even death.

In 2010, the Phnom Penh Post reported the death of young bride-to-be, Chhuon Sovann, blamed on skin-whitening cream. After heavy vomiting, she died in a Thai hospital at 23 years old. The rich levels of mercury and high-dose steroids in the most effective skin-lightening creams are the dangerous culprits. They can affect the body harmfully in many ways, wreaking havoc on the immune system while damaging the kidneys and affecting the brain’s processing. Other mercury toxicity symptoms include headaches, numbness, memory loss, weight loss, depression, and tingling in the extremities and face. Superficial damage can also happen, even if there isn’t severe damage to the inner organs or functions. Many users report extreme thinning of the skin, heavy bruising, redness, and uneven color loss. The lightening chemicals in the creams reduce the amount of melanin in the skin, making the body more susceptible to skin damage due to UV rays, leading to premature aging and potential skin cancer. Mercury can also pass through a mother’s breast milk and affect a nursing infant.

There are constant complaints and reports around beauty treatments across the world, but the grievances around skin bleaching and lightening stand out more than others. Two US-based women shared their stories of being poisoned from using skin-lightening cream. They had purchased unmarked, unlabeled products – but whitening creams aren’t always sold in suspect containers. Instead, they’re often branded by prominent, respected companies. In 2012, the British Skin Foundation found that 16% of dermatologists thought lightening creams are ‘completely unsafe’ while 80% believe they are only safe when prescribed by a licensed dermatologist.

Many women, along with a growing number of men, use these treatments because the media, family, and friends perpetuate the idea that lighter skin is better skin. A colleague shared an old saying from her Chinese family, “one white covers up three ugliness.” This idea was borne hundreds of years ago when the upper class stayed inside while the lower class workers toiled under the sun; lighter skin reflected labor status and, ultimately, class status.

One thing advertisers leave out when showing lighter-skinned models is the difference in whitening creams from person to person. We all have varying skin tones, so one product isn’t going to work the same for every person. And then there’s photo editing, where many companies have been criticized for unnecessarily lightening skin. Beyond viewing skin whitening and lightening creams as physically dangerous, consumers can remember these views are outdated and archaic: an old way of thinking, not worthy of the modern woman. Own your skin: lighter, darker, speckled, freckled, shiny, and matte.

Originally published in Ladies Magazine June 2013

This post has been updated with links

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