BLACK is beautiful, the saying goes, but when it comes to the skin, many people believe a light complexion is more beautiful, hence the reason many women bleach. However, medical experts warn that bleaching the skin endangers unborn and breastfeeding babies.
â€œIf a pregnant mother uses bleaching products, 88% of the chemicals cross the placenta, causing congenital abnormalities in babies,â€ says David Ekau, the central region drug inspector of the National Drug Authority (NDA).
â€œSome women use eye drops with bleaching agents to whiten their eyes. Prostitutes are the biggest culprits because they do not want their eyes to reflect lack of sleep. These beauty products contain metamathasane and dexamethasane, which contain poisonous compounds.
â€œProlonged or repeated use of these chemicals during pregnancy increases the risks of intrauterine growths. The baby may suffocate, resulting in a still birth or, if the baby survives death, its growth could be stunted,â€ Ekau says.
Some bleaching compounds like prednisolone end up in breast milk. Ekau says these chemicals may find their way into the body, if one eats without washing the hands properly.
This also increases chances of suffering from cancer and endangers children fed by mothers who do not wash their hands. The products are sometimes used as an anti-aging therapy to smoothen the skin and prevent wrinkles.
Despite the fact that little research has been done on the impact of the bleaching products on unborn babies, scanty facts show that the side effects are significant.
The Internet site, library.thinkquest.org, reveals that an epidemic in Japan saw 42 brain-damaged children in 400 live births with only one of the mothers showing no sign of mercury poisoning.
â€œMost mothers had used mercurybased bleaching creams during their childbearing years,â€ the site reveals, adding that, â€œSiblings of mercury-based cream users are also found to have the chemical in their urine. This goes to show that secondhand poisoning is possible.â€
Skin bleaching destroys melanin, the black pigment found in the epidermis (top layer of the skin), which protects the body from harsh sun rays.
Exposure of the skin to harsh weather increases risks of skin cancer. Charles Simuya, a dermatologist, says hydroquinone and mercury are the commonest chemicals found in skin lightening products.
Hydroquinone is severely toxic. It is used in photo processing, the manufacture of rubber and is an active agent in hair dyes, while mercury chloride and ammoniated mercury are likely to cause cancer.
Hydroquinone thickens skin protein fibres, damaging the connective tissues. The result is a rough and spotty blotchy skin.
Simuya says this is evident in some parts that cannot be completely bleached for example the temples, around the lips, eyelids, ears and joints. He says in the quest for a lighter complexion, some people use medicated creams that contain steroids.
â€œSteroids increase chances of stimulating acne or pimples,â€ he discloses. Ekau says bleaching makes the skin more susceptible to cancer. He says the chemicals could cause liver and kidney failure.
â€œSkin bleaching also causes delayed healing of wounds, especially after an operation. The skin loses its elasticity and stitching becomes very difficult,â€ he says. â€œSome women use any bleaching chemical, including Jik, meant for clothes. Some womenâ€™s skins are almost transparent.
Steroids prevent the formation of the skin, making it thinner.â€ He says steroids also destroy oneâ€™s immunity. â€œYou cannot fight disease as effectively as you would have before bleaching. Most women who bleach suffer from flu constantly,â€ Ekau says.
Challenges in regulation
Ekau says NDA cannot completely ban the products because some of them are medically recommended and used by professional dermatologists. â€œSometimes these creams are intended to be used on small spots to reduce scarring, but some women smear the creams all over their bodies,â€ he says.
Some manufacturers dupe their clients by leaving out the labels or under declaring the quantities of dangerous substances in their cosmetics. Some cosmetics, including herbal products, may seem safe but their effects are not well documented.
â€œWe do not know the quantities in which the cosmetics are mixed,â€ Ekau says. â€œIf NDA has been mandated by the health ministry to regulate foods, regulation of cosmetics has to be looked into.â€
He says there are flaws in the procurement and distribution of these products, most of which are imported. â€œSome are imported and repackaged, while others have no labels or date of expiry.
â€œSome products are sold in the sun, which alters their make-up, while others do not contain the ingredients indicated on the label. Some have restricted ingredients like hydroquinone, which is allowed in portions not exceeding 2%,â€ he says.
â€œAlthough some labels on the creams contain only 2% of hydroquinone or mercury, the percentage still remains harmful to the skin. We need a clear policy on skin lightening cosmetics so that acceptable ingredients are identified and dangerous ones banned.
Ordinary cosmetics should be clearly defined,â€ Ekau says. â€œEnforcement of standards and regulations should also be accompanied by public sensitization and awareness,â€ he adds.
Simuya says since bleaching is a trend, the only way to sensitise people is to address its longterm effects. He advises the public to look out for soap like Mekako that has mercury.
â€œSome cosmetics do not declare the ingredients completely, but they have attractive names like Skin Success, Jaribu, Peau Claire and Clere Extra Lightening Cream,â€ Simuya says.
â€œTake time to peruse through the ingredients. If you realize you are unknowingly bleaching, you need to withdraw gradually and eventually stop to prevent withdrawal syndromes,â€ Ekau advises.
He says with the help of the World Health Organisation, last year, NDA raided some shops and found harmful cosmetics on sale. â€œManufacturers should be inspected and monitored and the importers licensed.
Pharmaceuticals should be given clear distribution channels, but as these take effect, remember black is beautiful. Do not risk the life of your unborn baby,â€ Ekau advises.
Chemicals you must avoid
â€œMercury and hydroquinone prevent the production of melanin by altering the skin structure,â€ Charles Simuya, a dermatologist explains. Melanin plays a major protective role.
The dark complexion is the skinâ€™s own natural protection; it helps one to overcome the effects from the harmful ultra violet rays and without it, the skin is vulnerable.
â€œUnlike a person with a light skin complexion, a dark skin keeps renewing, making one look younger for a long time without experiencing signs of aging like wrinkles,â€ Simuya says.
Bleaching makes one age faster. Hydroquinone and mercury react with ultra violet rays causing a blueâ€“black discoloration of the skin, pigmentation and premature ageing.
Skin Bleaching: Donâ€™t risk the life of your unborn baby