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Problems of Skin Bleaching

Problems of Skin Bleaching
Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie


The practice of seeking materials which are usually chemicals to lighten the colour of the skin is known broadly as bleaching.

This practice is often put to good use when it helps to remove or lighten skin pigmentation caused by birth marks, or some old injury that increases the amount of melanin in the local area of the skin. The result is that the skin is made lighter with the removal of the extra melanin.

It is called skin lightening, a pervasive practice among the dark-skinned races of the world. For many years, it was also a nearly exclusive preserve of the women with many of them engaging indiscriminately in the practice. In this century, however, men are increasingly participating in the practice. While some of these chemicals have been found useful in removing unwanted skin pigments, some others are not so safe. The safety profile of some of them has been questioned at many fora. That has added to the controversy surrounding their use among women and among certain ethnic groups.

There is a lot of evidence to support the suggestion that bleaching may be a harmful process. Among the poor, what is frequently available are cheaper products that contain hydroquinone and mercurious chloride, both of which are harmful. The latter contains a heavy metal, namely mercury, which is slowly absorbed in the system with no hope of eventual excretion. A slow poisoning thus results with permanent injury to the kidneys, the brain and the heart. A failure of any of these organs has no hope of repair except by having an organ transplant. Even so, the brain cannot be transplanted. That is not to mention the initial damage to the skin that reduces its quality and its ability to protect the individual from simple injuries and microbial invasion.

On the other hand, it is often frustrating to have to suture skin lacerations in the emergency room of a woman who has bleached her skin red or pink in an effort to become more attractive. The wounds take longer to heal and the eventual result of such healing is poor. The scars are less satisfactory and such skin is also less like to heal primarily. The overall result is very unsatisfactory, and this applies to those wounds that do not get to be compromised further by bacterial infection. When an infection takes root, it is difficult to control and to treat and the eventual healing can cause some hideous scarring. Some have had to endure limb amputations because the infection they had could not be controlled and their lives were in grave danger.

As a result of these fears, hydroquinone was banned in Europe for many years and although it is available again, it is strictly a controlled substance available only on the prescription of a doctor. In many nations of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, these products are available with less ethical controls and so can be assessed by all who have the relatively little sums of money that can provide them with it.

In Nigeria, a series of tests conducted on common skin lightening creams showed that they caused mutations in bacteria and were possibly carcinogenic. This is very sobering news indeed for all those people who engage in skin bleaching that if it is a practice they want to continue with, then they need to move away from these cheap substitutes to the better products that are free of toxins. Those products are much more expensive though, because of the costly ingredients that go into their production. There is a huge market for such products among the wealthy Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan and many of them originate in Europe. The average man or woman in sub-Saharan Africa who has less disposable income, but wants to appear lighter all the same, is condemned to continue using the cheap, toxic products available to their economic bracket.

In the end, it is of vital importance to use any bleaching cream wisely by following the instructions very carefully. Do not overdo its application because you believe that the results will be faster to arrive and do not engage in mixing different products because you are not schooled enough to determine what chemical interactions could occur between these compounds. When such interactions do occur, they may be severe enough to cause skin damage over and above what the manufacturer intended. This creates a scenario that complicates the management of any lesion that affects that kind of skin and certainly increases the challenge of taking care of it.

Also, some of these products are probably carcinogenic. In other words, they have the ability to induce the formation of certain types of cancer, and this has to be a very negative legacy arising from a desire to change one’s looks and perhaps become more beautiful. It is a supreme irony of the modern age that while the dark-skinned races want to increasingly become “white,” the Caucasian woman desires to acquire a tan in the sunny beaches of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in order to get a shade darker and appear healthier.

On the whole, it is wise to note that these creams are mostly in use to deal with certain types of skin diseases; to remove the skin stains caused by chronic liver disease; aging; or the effects of using oral contraceptives on the skin. The wholesale skin bleaching which many women and increasingly men indulge in today must be seen in the context of the wider health risks they engender as very damaging potentially. It is thus a practice that needs to stop or in the alternative have the people who believe in its usefulness to scale up their involvement by investing their money in proven products with an acceptable safety profile. Such products are more expensive without a doubt but the increased cost pales into insignificance when compared to the ruinous legacy of enduring a leg amputation or of dealing with cancer or of funding an expensive organ transplant. As the maxim goes, a word is enough for the wise.







By Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie

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