I’d like to first start with how skin gets darker in the first place. Melanin is produced by specialized cells called melanocytes. The amino acid tyrosine is oxidized by these cells and then polymerized.
Melanogenesis happens to protect skin from UVB rays produced by the sun. Melanin is an effective absorber and diffuser of UVB rays (think of it as a natural sunscreen with an SPF value of about 15). Studies have shown that white skin is 70 times more likely to develop cancer than black skin (Halder, 1995). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use sunscreen though, it just means we’re more protected.
Sometimes the melanocytes may be a bit too active and over-produce melanin. This causes hyper-pigmentation and is more likely to occur with people of African heritage (naturally because we produce more eumelanin in the first place). Sun damage, hormones (especially during pregnancy) or inflammation (think acne scars and armpits) may all cause hyper-pigmentation.
Now that we have a general idea of how melanin forms, let’s examine the HORRIBLE ways to remove it.
Europeans (and Japanese) used white lead powder to lighten their complexions. It was the rave of the 16th century because it was so effective. Unfortunately lead as we now know can be absorbed through skin to cause hair loss, rotting teeth, paralysis, brain damage etc. A lot of people probably died from lead poisoning before the problem was recognized in the late 17th century.
Okay lead has been banned. But people still want to lighten their skin so mercury becomes the rave. Not that it’s any better than lead; in high doses it can be lethal and cause convulsions and death. 1,262 people called a Hong Kong helpline in 2002 after it was discovered that popular whitening creams Rosadew and La Rose Blanche had mercury levels 9,000 to 65,000 times above recommended use.
Or really the abuse of hydroquinone. Hydroquinone works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase (thereby slowing down the oxidation of tyrosine) and is a very effective skin lightener. However, it is NOT supposed to be used as a long-term skin lightener. Ochronosis (black-bluish splotches on body) may occur if this is done because the skin develops a resistance to hydroquinone.
Paradoxically, it may exacerbate the condition it was meant to treat. These marks are usually extremely (read almost impossible) to remove. Long term users may also suffer from fish smell syndrome where trimethylamine is discharged in sweat, saliva and urine(smells familiar?). Hydroquinone should only be used at concentrations 2% or less and used for 3 month intervals at a time then switching to other skin(preferably safer) lightening ingredients.
Hydroquinone unfortunately used to be (and is still) marketed as an ingredient in an everyday cream with levels far above the recommended 2%. Please please contact a dermatologist for more information before using anything containing hydroquinone. Hyper-pigmentation scars are usually gone before the 3 month mark but that may not always be the case.
Steroids work by constricting blood flow in the skin. This effect reduces the cell turnover rate and as a result,the skin lightens very quickly. However, constricting blood flow also guarantees very thin skin and green veins!
Steroids are originally intended for reducing inflammation; skin lightening is only a side-effect. Prolonged use may result in hypertension, elevated blood sugar and stretch marks that won’t fade. They are only supposed to be used under medical advice but unfortunately can be found in creams sold in all over the diaspora. What is especially worrying is that steroids are usually combined with mercury and hydroquinone to give an even greater lightening effect. In other words, STAY AWAY FROM STEROIDS!
This was the case for a lot of women using these creams growing in Lagos, Nigeria. I grew up hearing about and seeing women with green veins and black-bluish scars, all tell-tale signs. When you have time, read this article that says there a lot of Fair and White fakes floating around with undisclosed ingredients(which I’m guessing is a cocktail of hydroquinone, steroids and mercury).
That’s it for today guys! Join me next week for more #BrighterSkin where I’ll explore the RIGHT ways to lighten your skin. As always, please share, like and comment. Thank you for reading!2 Did you love this post?