Adaku Efuribe

Due to popular demand, I would like to discuss the chemical ingredients found in some bleaching, toning and whitening products. Over the course of my advocacy project for better healthcare systems and healthy living, I have received a lot of questions about this, which has prompted the need for this article.

I must say the motive for discussion is non judgmental, I’m passionate about creating awareness and encouraging people to be body vigilant and practice self care.

For this article exclusions include the use of skin lightening treatments under the care of a dermatologist or doctor for skin conditions like hyper pigmentation etc.

Evidence has shown that products applied on the skin in the form of creams, lotions, patches can get absorbed into the skin, as the skin layer is embedded with blood vessels as well, hence the motive behind the use of medicated skin patches for drug delivery systems.

The colour of the skin is determined by a person’s genetic make-up, and it involves the pigment melanin.

So why do people tend to lighten their skin?

Skin lightening/bleaching, is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler or fairer skin tone. Most women tend to bleach their skin because they believe they would look more beautiful and attractive to the opposite sex. Others may want to fade dark spots caused by acne or other skin problems.

Whatever the reason may be, we should be aware that applying banned or harmful substances on our skin may lead to complications or permanent skin damage. Skin-lightening procedures work by reducing the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour and helps protect it from the sun rays.

What the makeup of the human skin?

The skin is the largest organ of the body, with a total area of about 20 square feet. The skin protects us from harmful foreign bodies and harsh weather conditions; it helps to regulate our body temperature as well.

The skin has three layers:

Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis, also constitutes- hair follicles, sweat glands, fat connective tissues and blood vessels; The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone; The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands; and the deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) made of fat and connective tissue.

According to the London Trading standards, “The following ingredients found in some skin lightening products have been proven to be harmful to health and cause permanent skin damage: Hydroquinone, mercury, steroids, korjic acid, among others. “

Hydroquinone: This is a derivative of Benzene and has been found listed by alternative names in some ingredients lists (for example 1,4-Dihydroxybenzene). It inhibits production of the pigment melanin which gives skin its colour.

However melanin is vital to protect the skin against UV radiation so your body will over compensate by producing more melanin. This results in a darker patchier appearance developing; it damages the elastin strands in skin causing premature aging and weakening of the skin; it can cause neuropathy (a disease of the nervous system) and it can damage your liver. It also increases the risk of skin cancer from UV radiation. It has been illegal across the EU since 2001 to sell products with hydroquinone.

Mercury: This is a toxic and accumulates in the body, damaging the kidneys, liver and brain, causing a host of serious and potentially fatal health problems. It can also cause foetalabnormalities if used in pregnancy. Mercury has been banned from consumer cosmetic products since 1996.

Steroids: Steroids (topical corticosteroids) such as clobetasolpropionate and betamethasonedipropionate should only be used under medical supervision. They are prohibited in cosmetic products. Misuse can cause skin thinning, stretch marks, bruising and broken veins. Eczema, psoriasis and acne can all flare up and there is an increased risk of skin infection, sores and boils. Prolonged use can affect the release of hormones that control and stabilise vital functions with very serious or life threatening consequences.’

I have observed that steroid creams in tubes are sold in the markets in Nigeria. Sometimes people buy those tubes and mix them in their regular creams to achieve a skin lightening effect, Steroid creams and gels are pharmacy only and prescription only medicine in some countries.

Such creams should not be sold in the open market without the supervision of a pharmacist I believe.

If you are in doubt about any products you are using on your skin, a good place to start is to double-check if the product has been approved by the appropriate regulatory agencies in your country.

Approved products fit for human use should be registered, also be mindful of using products that the manufacturers do not list all the ingredients.

Analysis by the regulatory agencies could help reveal the actual ingredients contained in those products.

Research Extracts:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments, Mercury in Skin Lightening Products Flyer), in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25 per cent, 77 per cent, 27 per cent, 35 per cent, and 59 per cent of women respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis.

The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage. Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy’.

Another research by Eric Selorm Agorku et al: (Mercury and hydroquinone content of skin toning soaps, and the potential risks to the health of Ghanaian women Published online 2016Mar 11).

‘In this study, sixty-two (62) skin-lightening creams and soaps were analysed for total mercury and hydroquinone levels.Hydroquinone is a potential carcinogenic ingredient used in skin lightening and treatment of hyper-pigmentation (Joseph et al. 1998). Hydroquinone does not actually bleach the skin but rather, a strong inhibitor of melanin production (Yoshimura et al. 2001). Hydroquinone used for topical application is known to cause serious health hazards when used excessively (Hutson et al. 1999). Hydroquinone toxicity can lead to severe side effects such as kidney and liver malfunction, blood poisoning, nausea, abdominal pains, convulsion and even coma. Animal test on rats, mice and rabbits showed that hydroquinone can cause acute toxicity (Aldrich 1990)’.

If you are concerned about any active ingredient or products you apply on your skin, please speak to your local pharmacist or see your doctor. I would advise you to always check with the regulatory agencies in your country when in doubt, to ensure products you use on your skin are safe, approved and registered.

Efuribe, is of the United Nations SDG Advocate