While those of us in the West do not aspire to the milky white complexions so desired in the Far East or even the pale skins so preferred in India and the Middle East, nevertheless, there are many of us who would like to lighten patches of dark or pigmented skin. The past few years as seen a massive growth in the sale of skin whitening products but do these treatments actually work?
A history of skin whitening
Applying treatments to lighten the skin is not a modern invention or new desire – it has been going on for centuries, particularly in Asian, Latin American, African and Middle Eastern cultures. For example, the world-renowned geishas had famously whitened faces whilst the Chinese were recorded as eating ground up pearls to try and lighten their skin. Even today, the cultural bias is so strong that in some countries like Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and India, your chances of being hired for a job was higher if you were fairer-skinned.
Even in Europe in the last century, pale skin was considered the standard of beauty and women went to great lengths to keep their complexions fair. So strong was this desire that women often resorted to using products with dangerous ingredients in them, such as toxic mercury and arsenic and poisonous hydroquinone. Even as late as the 1950’s a skin whitening soap with mercury, carboxlic acid and phenol-hydroquinone was being marketed, with sales reaching billions of US dollars.
A growing market
Today, skin whitening is a market worth billions and the number of skin whitening lotions, creams, soaps and even pills has increased. This has been helped by endorsement and promotion by celebrities and by the phenomenon becoming a fashion or household trend. Even in the West where a tanned look is preferred over milky white skin, there is still a demand for products that can correct hyperpigmentation and dark spots or dark acne scars.
Melanin – the key to all pigmentation problems
All skin – no matter what race or type – contains melanin, the pigment which gives your skin its colour. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin looks. Certain parts of the body may have higher concentrations of melanin and therefore appear to look darker. Freckles, for example, are simply small, concentrated areas of increased melanin production and they can occur in people of all races and skin types. Melanin actually as a protective function as it absorbs harmful UV rays, therefore providing protection against skin damage from the sun. In fact, melanocytes will increase their production of melanin in direct response to sun exposure – in effect, this is what tanning is.
Melanin is produced by melanocyte cells and its production is triggered by the enzyme, tyrosinase. Therefore, one way to control melanin production and therefore how much pigmentation is displayed in the skin is to control tyrosinase activity. Reduce the activity of this enzyme and you will reduce pigmentation.
Dark discolouration of the skin is caused by hyper pigmentation due to skin trauma. This skin trauma can be caused by a variety of things, such as friction, injury, insect bites and can affect any person and skin type, regardless of race. Even when the injury has healed, local areas of darker pigmentation remain. Naturally, the darker your basal skin tone, the darker the hyper pigmentation. Alternatively, dark skin discolouration can be caused by hormonal imbalances – these stimulate overactive melanocytes, which result in acne, age spots, freckles and melasma. These kinds of dark spots in particular are easily aggravated by sun exposure.
How skin whitening products work
Skin whitening products therefore work by counteracting the activity of tyrosinase, thereby limiting and slowing down the melanocytes’ production of melanin. In addition, they have an exfoliating action, inducing a mild skin peeling to help slough away the top layer of dead, dull skin cells and revealing the fresher and lighter-coloured skin layer underneath.
Contrary to what many people believe, skin whitening is not a fast process. You cannot lighten your skin or reduce pigmented areas overnight. It usually takes a long period of prolonged use. The darker your skin, the longer it will take. In addition, skin whitening is not permanent’ but requires ongoing maintenance treatments and applications to maintain the lighter colour. The amount required is minimal but it has to be maintained. This is especially true if you continue to go in the sun regularly. And remember, without using sunscreen consistently and thoroughly, skin whitening is futile as every exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays will be undoing any improvements achieved by the skin whitening cream.
Finally, it is worth noting that skin whitening creams do not work for every individual – results can vary. In fact, some people with sensitive skin may notice more sun sensitivity and irritation when using a skin whitening product. Thus, it may be necessary to try out various brands and different types of whitening products before finding one that is suitable to your skin type.