While tanning for cosmetic purposes is a fairly recent phenomenon, skin care products designed to lighten skin have been used for thousands of years. There is a worldwide market for these substances despite the dangers they pose. The imposition of Western European beauty standards may be partly to blame for the prevalence of this phenomenon in many countries. But the practice of skin lightening was already in place in many cultures prior to contact with European influences. Unfortunately, the safety of the ingredients used in some of these products has not improved much over the centuries.
Heavy Metal Hazard
One commonly used substance for skin whitening is mercury – a metal well known for its toxicity. This ingredient is used because it bleaches skin fairly effectively if used on an ongoing basis. It can be absorbed into the body through the skin and builds up over time. There are no symptoms of early mercury exposure (except in those who experience skin irritation). Users generally only develop health problems after the metal has had time to accumulate in their system. By this point, much of the harm to the user’s health may be irreversible. Serious risks of mercury poisoning include brain and kidney damage.
U.S. Consumers Not Protected
In the United States, the use of mercury in skin creams has been banned for 20 years. This does not mean that there are no skin care products containing this dangerous ingredient available in this country. Lightening creams manufactured and marketed in other countries still contain mercury. These products are finding their way onto the shelves of beauty supply stores all over the U.S. The FDA does not currently have the resources to prevent this from happening. In addition, consumers can now purchase products directly online from anywhere in the world. Many of these contain dangerous levels of mercury that may or may not be disclosed on the label.
Can Skin Be Lightened Safely?
A number of prescription medications can be applied to correct unsightly darker spots that don’t match the rest of a patient’s natural skin tone. These skin care products can still have side effects and should only be used as directed. Dermatologists can suggest additional methods for maintaining a lighter skin tone (such as limiting UV exposure). However, the use of skin bleaching agents such as hydroquinone for treating large areas of skin on an ongoing basis is usually not recommended. If a patient has a healthy, even skin tone it is usually much more advantageous to simply accept it as it is than to attempt to change it.