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What’s in that bottle? The science behind skin-lightening products

27 Mar 2016

From Jamaica to Japan, skin lightening for cosmetic purposes is still a very popular practice all over the world among people of colour (PoC). By 2018, the industry is forecast to be worth over £14 billion, despite many of the products on sale being potentially harmful and illegal. Over the next week, gal-dem will be exploring why they’re used, but first, do we know exactly what goes into these products?

Many non-prescription skin-lightening products are actually illegal to distribute in the UK due to the damaging effects they can have, and it’s likely that some of the bottles you’ve seen in your local black-hair shop, plastered with those eerie images of smiling, light skinned ladies on them, are in fact illegal products. As the NHS states: “A lightening cream obtained without prescription – for example, bought in a shop – may contain banned substances and be on sale illegally. People who use these illegally sold creams might not realise the harm they can cause.”

People of darker complexions have more melanin present in their skin, and it acts as a protectant against light – nature’s very own sunscreen. Skin-lighteners work by stopping the production of melanin in the skin, the pigment found in the body which determines the colour of your skin, hair and irises, and this suppression is very often dangerous.

So what are the most common banned ingredients?

Hydroquinone is one of the most common ingredients found in banned skin-lightening products, and this is what stops melanin from being produced. Prolonged use of skin-lightening products with this ingredient (which can be prescribed safely) can lead to a plethora of long-term problems, from skin-ageing and liver damage to a serious condition called exogenous ochronosis, which can cause hyper-pigmentation and skin lesions.

Then there’s mercurya substance that led to the phrase “mad as a hatter”. Hat makers in the 18th and 19th century used mercury to make felt, which eventually left them with serious neurological problems. It is extremely toxic and it has actually been banned in skin products since 1976. Because mercury is so harmful, full body application of skin-lightners which use mercury can lead to serious health problems. The British Skin Foundation states that the use of products containing mercury can cause “increased pigmentation, foetal abnormalities if used during pregnancy and severe and itchy rashes”.

And to put the cherry on the cake, high-dose steroids can also be found lurking in these skin-lightening products.

“Many skin-lightening creams also contain steroids in doses up to 1,000 times higher than in creams used to treat eczema and other skin conditions,” writes , a doctor at an Australian public hospital. “Steroid use can cause all sorts of complications such as thinning of the skin, acne, red stretch marks and discolouration.

“Worse still, the steroids in these creams can act like cortisol, a hormone made by the body to deal with stress. Too much cortisol can cause a myriad of problems, including swelling of the face and abdomen, weight gain, thin skin that bruises easily, stretch marks, weak muscles, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.

“It can also fool the body into ceasing cortisol production. So, if someone suddenly stops using these creams, they could become seriously ill because their stress hormones have been temporarily ‘turned off’.”

An important message to take from this is that skin-lightening products not only affect the body physically, but they can also cause long-lasting psychological effects for the people of colour using them. While also used for skin conditions like vitiligo, one of the leading reasons why women (and it is mainly women) use these products is to achieve a lighter aesthetic in an attempt to fit in with Eurocentric beauty standards. This was highlighted in a 2011 survey by the British Skin Foundation. A third of those using skin-lightening products said they did so because they believed “lighter skin was more attractive”.

It is this dangerous mentality that leads to the use of skin-lightening products.

Many thanks to the British Skin Foundation. Get involved with gal-dem’s skin lightening series. Comment, tweet us at @galdemzine using the hashtag #skinlighteningseries, or email if you would like to share your experience.