Beyond the Pale
Hydroquinone, widely used in skin lightening creams, is soon to be banned altogether.BY Prisca McGuire
Poisoning, convulsions, asthma, leukaemia, liver damage, anaphylactic shock and infertility are not conditions normally associated with cosmetics. However, prolonged use of certain cosmetic creams, which contain bleaching agents, has been linked with all of the above.
In recent years, despite rigorous campaigning to raise awareness about the dangers of excessive exposure to the sun, the serious health risks which can arise from using unregulated bleaching creams has received little or no attention.
Black skin renews itself quickly, rapidly producing new skin cells, this ability for regeneration keep our skin’s looking younger for longer. Whenever Black skin is damaged or traumatised, it produces an excess of melanin in the area. This hyper-pigmentation can result in a humble spot or cut producing a dark patch where it is healed. Skin bleaches are often used in an attempt to even out skin tone or remove dark patches caused by injury. However, in some sections of the society, particularly in African communities, skin bleaches are used to lighten the skin in the misguided belief that a lighter complexion is better.
The production of the most commonly used bleaching agent, hydroquinone (chemical formula C6H6O2), came about by accident, after Black workers in a rubber plant found that when a certain chemical came into contact with their skin it caused light patches of skin. The workers sued for damages as a result of their injuries, but their ‘discovery’ led to the commercial production of cosmetic creams containing hydroquinone as a bleaching agent.
Hydroquinone is a very powerful chemical that it used as the key ingredient in the photographic process of development, but is also used in the rubber industry as an antioxidant, and as an agent in hair dyes. Mercury is another product often used in some cosmetic products as a bleaching agent. Severly toxic, it can cause skin to go grey or blue black, rather than lighter, and in many cases has resulted in the user suffering from mercury poisoning.
How do they work?
Bleaching creams work by stripping the skin of its natural pigmentation. However, in dark skinned people, the pigmentation is the skin’s natural protection from the sun. Bleaching doesn’t just superficially lighten the skin, it alters the skin’s ‘natural’ structure, removing and inhibiting the production of the colour creating melanin.
Once the skin has been ‘bleached’ it loses its natural protective barrier, making it susceptible to damage by the sun’s rays. This is also why many bleaching products contain either sunscreen, or come with instructions advising people to use sun protection creams along with the product. Prolonged use of these bleaching products can also prevent the formation of melanin in the deeper basal layers of the skin, which will leave the skin lighter, but also leave it more vulnerable to damage. Hydroquinone in particular, has been found to damage the connective tissue in the skin and cartilage, hence its removal from skincare products.
People who use bleaching products can end up with rough and blotchy skin, and then get caught up in the ‘bleaching trap’ by using more cream to try and correct the problem, and by doing so, find themsevles causing even more damage to their skin. Alternatively, they may find that because of exposure to the sun, their ‘lightened skin’ gets darker.
Up until now it has been legal to sell and promote skin bleaches which contain a maximum of two per cent hydroquinone. Although there is anecdotal evidence of shops selling under the counter creams that contain over this legal limit. Even at national and international levels, standards differ. For example, anyone caught travelling to the Gambia with cosmetics containing hydroquinone is subject to a large fine. Yet, another African country was recently prepared to pay research scientist Sujata Jolly, two million pounds to develop a bleaching cream.
Sujata told us, ‘I couldn’t take the contract. Having seen the terrible effects skin bleaching has had on some people, there was no way I was prepared to take the contract, no matter how much money they offered.’ She said, ‘I’ve been campaigning against the use of bleaching creams for years, and have written and appealed to health ministers in an attempt to get them to do something, because I feel so strongly about the dangers of using these creams.’
Sujata adds that she’s not alone. Southwark Council’s Trading Standards Council recently led a campaign against the use of bleaching creams. The campaigning efforts have finally paid off, because this time next year, hydroquinone will no longer be approved as a bleaching agent for use in cosmetic creams in
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has received a directive (Twenty-fourth Commission Directive), from the European Commission, banning the use of hydroquinone as a skin lightener. The draft of the directive clearly states that ‘Harmful secondary effects have been shown to arise following prolonged use of hydroquinone as a skin-lightening cream. This particular use of hydroquinone must not therefore be authorised’. This means that not even the current allowance of two per cent of hydroquinone in cosmetics will be approved by law. Member states are already taking measures to implement the directive. However, worryingly, some major cosmetic companies are not even aware of the directive.