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Not Fair: the perils of lightening creams

May 28th 2012 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru

Lighter skin is still seen as desirable

Donna Karen Spring Summer 2012, Alexandre Herchcovitch Spring Summer 2012, Donna Karen Spring Summer 2012 (Catwalking.com)

Ayesha Muttucumaru seeks out the best beauty products for black, Asian and mixed-race women. This week: a doctor's view on skin-bleaching

The dream of fair skin is big business in Asia. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly in my view) it seems to be an ideal that women strive for, whether it’s reflected in the newest Bollywood heroine or a visibly lighter-skinned Beyoncé on an album cover.

It's easy to blame marketing executives, but this is a mentality that has been instilled in Asian culture for generations. A darker complexion was often an indicator of a lower caste, for example of tea workers and labourers, occupations that involved being out in the sun for long periods of time. Although attitudes have vastly improved, some women of my generation and race still shudder at the prospect of getting darker in the sun because they equate fairness with beauty and desirability. I recently saw an advert for a vagina-lightening product as a way of improving your love life. If it weren’t so tragic it would be laughable.

According to consultant dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe, there is a big difference between skin whitening and skin lightening. Dr Lowe prefers the latter term as skin whitening carries some dangerous risks. It can result in irreversible pigment loss in the skin and potentially if used too close to the eyes, in the retina as well.

Last year Sky News reported on corner shop owners who were risking hefty fines and even imprisonment by selling illegal whitening creams in the UK. That so many were prepared to take the risk indicates the demand for such products - yet with some containing toxic chemicals, the risk to the consumer is great. Hydroquinone, the most common prescription skin lightener, is illegal in most countries unless a physician has prescribed it. According to Nick Lowe, if used in too high a concentration, it could increase your risk of cancer and cause dark grey and blue discolouration of the skin.

Although many use skin-lightening products to address excess pigmentation caused by pregnancy, the contraceptive pill and too much sun exposure, Dr Lowe does encounter patients who desire a fairer complexion because sadly, they consider it to be more beautiful. In these cases, he tries to talk them out of going through with these treatments, “People need to stop abusing their skin, whether it be through sunbeds or illegal skin-lightening creams. Essentially, the colour that each of us is born with is the most beautiful”.

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