The worrying rise of skin whitening creams

Libby-Jane Charleston

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The quest for beauty has surely never been more apparent than with the realization that the skin whitening product industry is worth an estimated $3 billion worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims Nigeria has the highest number of women using skin lightening products -- a staggering 77 percent.

According to WHO, 59 percent of women in Togo are trying to lighten their skin and 27 percent in Senegal. In many parts of Africa, lighter-skinned women are considered more beautiful and are believed to be more successful and likely to find marriage.

The products are also popular in countries such as Liberia, South Africa, Sudan, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines, Pakistan, Brazil, the US, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Uganda and many more.

Most of the products work to inhibit the melanin in skin, including facial and body whitening creams -- as well as genital and underarm lighteners.

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Whitening skin products are also booming across Asia -- particularly in Thailand. Recently, a Thai advertisement for a skin whitening cream called Snowz featured actress Sirin Horwang saying, "You just need to be white to win." She appears beside a model whose skin has been darkened.

This advert in Thailand was slammed in social media as being racist.

Tens of thousands of social media users slammed the video as racist, while thousands of others just wanted to know where to buy the product.

Dr Gabrielle Caswell is an aesthetic and skin cancer doctor and president of the Cosmetic Physicians Society of Australasia. Dr Caswell said there are several potential problems with skin whitening treatments.

"Having an even-toned face is often considered desirable. However, there has been recent trends towards a paler face that may not be healthy for the skin, as it may also collect more sun damage as it becomes exposed to the sun," Dr Caswell said.

"The products can irritate the skin, cause redness and rash, the possibility of skin infections such as thrush and bacterial, patchy skin pigmentation, systemic effects have been known to occur (especially to Kojic acid) after transdermal absorption, scarring after use (from acid/dosage issues) and allergic reaction to an ingredient."

A variety of chemicals are used in skin lightening creams, depending on what country the product is coming from.

"Traditionally in western countries hydroquinone is often used, however it can irritate the skin in the doses often needed to work well. In Eastern countries Kojic acid is often used. But I believe that it is no longer welcome in Europe and was not often used in Australia," Dr Caswell said.

Kemi Nekvapil is a life-coach and motivational speaker who has a Nigerian background, raised in the UK and now lives in Australia. She finds it incredibly upsetting that so many women are trying to lighten their skin.

"What's scary is there is a demand for the products. Some women have a skin issue that it can be used medically, but it's on the rise because women are being forced, or sold, to adhere to a certain beauty form -- the idea that you must be white to be successful," Nekvapil said.

Kemi Nekvapil. Picture Supplied

"We have a situation where black women are lightening their skin, Asian women are also lightening their skin but also getting their jaw bone smashed to give them a pointier chin and their eyes 'fixed' to look Caucasian. I know for me, being from Nigeria and growing up in England, beauty wasn't something on my radar. What I saw as beautiful was someone who didn't look like me."

Nekvapil said when she was growing up, she played with 'Cindy' dolls. She now believes the idea of beauty was already being told to her during her childhood play.

"It's very subtle. That's why I decided at 16, looking in the mirror at school, and thinking to myself, 'If you keep comparing yourself to other people you'll never love yourself and you'll never be happy.' That was such a gift to me and led me to do the work I do now. We need to create a form of beauty that we own that comes from who we are and the actions we take. Our external beauty increases when we are living a life that's fulfilled, passionate and full of meaningful contribution."

Recently, actor Emma Watson faced social media backlash after appearing in a Lancome advertisement for its 'pearl perfect whiteness' -- a product offering to lightening the skin. Lancome is not the only European cosmetics company to offer a skin whitening range to its non-European market. L'Oreal Paris' White Perfect range is exclusively sold in non-western countries, promising 'pearl perfect whiteness' to women through its active ingredients of tourmaline gemstone and Vitamin C.

Watson hit back at critics, pointing out that the ad was from 2011 and she no longer models in beauty products which "do not always reflect the diverse beauty of all women."

Emma Watson was criticized for appearing in this Lancome ad for a skin whitening product. Picture Supplied

Nekvapil wants to encourage all women to stop focussing on beauty and focus on what they are passionate about.

"All women need to focus on how they can contribute their very best. What do you want to be in the world? What do you want on your grave stone? 'She managed to go from dark brown to light brown skin.' Or 'She managed to make it to a size 6.' What is it you are here to do? It's not to be a certain skin color," Nekvapil said.

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I'm a journalist and author writing across a wide range of topics, including tech, travel, history, business/startups, relationships, beauty & fashion, British royal history, & local stories concerning Charleston, S.C (where I have a long family history on my father's side: hence my surname! ) Former HuffPost Assoc Ed, ABC TV, ATV Beijing correspondent and many more. Author of "Fatal Females." Mother of three boys: I will love them until the Statue of Liberty sits down.


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