Go into any beauty supply shop in South London, and you'll find an aisle devoted to skin bleaching products. Among the shelves, you'll see bottle after tub after tube of products with names such as Creme Bleach, Ultra White, Fair And Lovely, many showing before and after photos of models with considerably lightened skin.
The truth is, skin whitening or skin bleaching has been going on for years. The cosmetic treatment calls upon a number of topical chemicals that lightened areas of darkened skin, or else work to lighten skin tone overall.
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"It’s a nasty hangover from colonial times when people with lighter skin did have more privileges and power in society," writes journalist Dr Ateh Jewel on her website Jewel Tones Beauty. "To be dark was to be disempowered and with centuries of people and a political and economic system telling you that your skin tone is something to be ashamed of – it’s not a surprise people reach for the bleach to help what they think will elevate their status. It’s makes me so angry that in the 21 century, this is still happens and I’m receiving the email like the one below."
On top of the ethical implications, skin bleaching products are often sold illegally and contain chemicals that have been banned because they have been deemed unsafe to use. Hydroquinone is one such ingredient. According to the British Skin Foundation, hydroquinone works by "inhibiting production of the pigment melanin, which gives skin its colour. Its overuse has been linked with a blue grey pigmentation known as ochronosis developing in the skin. It can damage elastin strands in the skin causing premature ageing and weakening of skin. Long term, widespread use can cause problems with the nerves and liver." Yikes.
Another extremely harmful chemical often found in illegal skin bleaching products is mercury, which inhibits the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. A report by the World Health Organisation warned that the use of mercury in such creams resulted in a number of dangerous consequences. "The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage." It can also cause rashes, discolouration, scarring, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy. "The products used can be toxic to cells, especially if excessively large areas are treated for a long period of time," explains Dr Aamer Khan, co-founder of Harley Street Skin Clinic and an expert in skin conditions like acne, sun damage, scarring, hyperpigmentation or premature ageing. At Harley Street Skin, we do not advocate skin bleaching for ethical reasons."
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These ingredients, and products containing them, are banned in the EU and US. However, this doesn't stop them from being sold illegally and regulation is almost non-existent. Globally, business is booming. In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8bn (£3.4bn), despite the World Health Organisation classing the practice as a global health crisis.
According to NHS guidelines, any product claiming to lighten skin or contain ingredients such as steroids or hydroquinone must be prescribed by a doctor, as well as staying in close with your doctor throughout treatment. Any product that contains these ingredients that is available to buy on the high street or online is illegal and should be avoided completely. And never buy products on that contain mercury. Ever.