Vanity can be fatal: The long and deadly desire for a lighter complexion
In ancient Rome, wealthy women applied white lead to their faces for a lighter complexion. Although the chalky material did help them achieve it for a while, it would eventually result in a corpse like, greyish pallor. Being a highly toxic material, it would in some cases also cause needless deaths.
Centuries later, in Europe, women in the Renaissance period would whiten their faces to be distinct from those of lower class — darker shades were reserved for peasant women who naturally got tanned working in the fields under the sun. A popular 16th-century cosmetic used as a skin whitener was a concoction of white lead and vinegar called “ceruse.” Queen Elizabeth I was an avid user of this preparation. It not only had a myriad of skin-related side effects but would also result in baldness.
These poisonous substances continue to be added to skin whitening products until today. They enjoy mass use in Asia, where in ancient times having fair skin was synonymous with nobility. European colonizers who with their pale complexions positioned themselves as superior to local populations reinforced that belief. These sentiments have been deeply internalized across societies such as ours and continue to be promoted. TV commercials are inundated with whitening creams, lotions, potions and soaps. Certain whitening products are advertised with blatant messages implying that pale skin is necessary for one to get a good marriage proposal, job, or become someone in life.
Skin lightening creams containing mercury can damage one’s kidneys without the patient even realizing it. Mercury can also damage the nerves, leading to permanent numbness of the skin. If a person using facial products that contain mercury regularly kisses or hugs their little child, skin contact with the substance can harm the kid’s developing brain.
Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba
Back in 1971, Unilever patented “Fair & Lovely,” a brand synonymous with creating negative stereotypes around darker skin tones. After facing a backlash from various advocacy campaigners, mounting public pressure as well as petitions, after half a century, Unilever Hindustan this year rebranded the cream to call it “Glow & Lovely.” In its official statements, the company said it recognizes that the words “fair,” “white” and “light” suggest a singular idea of beauty which they think is not right. On June 27, Unilever Pakistan decided to follow suit.
While both Unilever branches were lauded for the move and many rejoiced at the cream’s new name, it remains a fact that it is still a whitening product. Changing its name is not enough to change perceptions about skin color.
Many fairness creams sold under different names, with ingredients not printed on their labels, are known to contain skin bleaching agents such as hydroquinone, mercury or steroids which can cause side effects ranging from local irritation of the skin to extremes like neuropathy and immunotoxicity. Skin lightening creams containing mercury can damage one’s kidneys without the patient even realizing it. Mercury can also damage the nerves, leading to permanent numbness of the skin. If a person using facial products that contain mercury regularly kisses or hugs their little child, skin contact with the substance can harm the kid’s developing brain.
In South Asia, where most people are born with darker skin tones, harmful conditioning related to skin color is not only exploited by cream producers but has sadly also creeped into medicine.
Many medical practitioners are prescribing pills and injections that work as lightening agents without even properly investigating them. The US Food and Drug Administration does not approve of most of these treatments. The medicines used in such procedures often are not even licensed as whitening or lightening agents. Skin brightening drips or whitening drips are widely available but this treatment raises concerns due to one particular ingredient: glutathione. Its potential adverse effects, according to research published by the British Medical Journal, include toxicity of the nervous system, kidneys and liver, constant headaches and, although rarely, a serious skin condition called the Steven Johnson Syndrome. Regular and prolonged use can also lead to potential organ failure.
While the craze for a lighter complexion is unlikely to fade soon, the past few years have seen an encouraging trend in advocacy against colorism in South Asia. #Unfairandlovely is a social media campaign where women speak out against skin lightening. In India, “Stay unfair stay beautiful” a campaign spearheaded by Nandita Das, a dusky Bollywood actress, has a huge following. In Pakistan, campaigns like “Dark is Beautiful” and “Dark is Divine” are trying to address the cultural and psychological aspects of the fair complexion obsession, and highlight medical damages caused by prolonged use of lightening creams.
Despite public protests, whitening products are still all the rage in Pakistan, endorsed by celebrities with a huge fan followership. The media are crucial in helping empower these voices, but they would also have to stop sabotaging them by airing expensive commercials that only strengthen the status quo.
The medical community can help by encouraging frank and open discussion on the topic as well as making the public aware of the potential dangers and side effects of using skin lightening agents.
*Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.