Beauty, Cambodia, Fashion, lifestyle, Phnom Penh

Dying to be white.

A horrible advertisement.

A horrible advertisement.

The Dangers of Skin Lightening Cream

When perusing the health and beauty aisle of your local supermarket or beauty supply store in Cambodia and other parts of Asia like India and Thailand, it’s common to see row upon row of skin lightening and whitening creams, lotions, and foams. These popular products are not a new addition to beauty rituals and celebrities, models, and peers alike are sharing their success stories and parading artificially lightened skin, believing it to be attractive. The idea that lighter is better has obviously caught on with an estimated $18 billion USD spent per year on whitening products in Asia alone. Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to the skin lightening industry that many have turned a blind eye. The phrase “pain is beauty” may be the perfect tag line for these lightening systems, but it is not so beautiful when the user is suffering from poisoning or worse, dead.

There are constant complaints and reports regarding beauty products and medications across the world but with the popularity of skin lightening creams, some grievances should stand out more than others. In particular, two women from the United States, one from California and the other from Virginia reported that they were poisoned due to skin lightening cream usage, according to The Huffington Post. While the skin whitening creams available in many countries may not be sold in unmarked white containers and are even branded by large, respected companies, you still may be harming your body with dangerous chemicals.

In 2010, the Phnom Penh Post reported that the death of a young bride-to-be, Chhuon Sovann, was blamed on a skin-whitening cream when she experienced heavy vomiting after usage. She perished in a Thai hospital at twenty three years old. The heavy levels of mercury and high dose steroids that are the active ingredients in most effective skin lightening creams are the culprit in poisoning and can affect the body negatively in a multitude of ways. Mercury wreaks havoc on the immune system while damaging the kidneys and affecting the brain’s processing. Other symptoms of mercury toxicity include headaches, numbness, memory loss, weight loss, depression, and tingling in the extremities and face. Superficial damage is also prevalent, even if serious damage to the inner organs or functions are not experienced. Many users have incidents of 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 which makes the body more susceptible to skin damage due to UV rays, leading to premature aging and skin cancer. Mercury can also pass through a mother’s breast milk and affect the baby, another enormous risk.  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, which is rarely the case when purchasing products from the grocery store or market.

Many women, along with a growing number of men, are using these creams because they are unhappy with their natural skin color of rich tan or warm brown. The media, family, and friends are perpetuating the thought that women must be lighter in color to be beautiful. An ancient Japanese and Chinese saying “one white covers up three ugliness” is a perfect example of this mindset. This idea was formed hundreds of years ago when people of high class didn’t have to go outside to toil in the sun and maintained lighter toned skin or as historian Gerald Horne from the University of Houston states, “those who had skin burnt by the sun were working in the fields, therefore, the whitening of the skin was a reflection of labor status.”

One thing that advertisers and manufacturers ignore when displaying the lightly colored models is that difference races simply have diverse skin colors due to melanin (the pigment in skin that gives us color) levels that vary from person to person. Another downfall of the skin lightening advertisements are that they are heavily photo shopped and doctored to look lighter, in most cases the models and celebrities are not as light as they are portrayed and are actually lying to the customer about possible outcomes. Many women are told that men will not want to marry them if they have dark skin, but what about beautiful icons like Beyonce, Jessica Alba, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez? Beyond viewing skin whitening and lightening creams as physically dangerous, consumers need to be view these things as outdated and archaic: an old way of thinking, not worthy of the modern woman.

Originally published in Ladies Magazine June, 2013

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