The British may have left India almost a century ago, but they also left behind a massive colonial hangover in their wake that we refuse to shake off. One of the most glaring examples of it is our obsession with fair skin. If the commercials and hoardings for fairness creams were not enough evidence, some stats would bolster this assumption better. The women’s fairness cream market in India, an ever growing mammoth, is expected to reportedly gross revenues of over Rs 5,000 crore by 2023.
Having already been influenced by media, cinema and cultural conditioning that portray fair skin as the quintessential beauty attribute, consumers too easily give in to various gimmicks of cosmetic companies. However, in the frenzy to be the fairest of them all, the onslaught of these fairness products on the skin often gets overlooked.
More Than Just Bleaching Agents? Maybe Not
Dr Pooja Chopra, Consultant, Dermatology, Aakash Healthcare, Dwarka, New Delhi, further emphasises this obsession and its detrimental effects on the body.
"We are obsessed with fair skin and the cosmetic industry has taken advantage of this fact and introduced the concept of ‘fairness creams’. " - Dr Pooja Chopra
But are they even effective? The simple answer is no. All that they mainly do is bleach your skin, and in some cases, shield it from the sun.
Dr Chopra explains it in the following manner:
"Nothing can change the colour of the skin we are born with. However, these so-called fairness creams contain bleaching agents like hydroquinone which reduce the production of melanin (skin pigment that determines your complexion). They also block the sun’s rays, in turn reducing tanning which gives the fairness’ effect." - Dr Pooja Chopra
Dr Arvind Kaul, Consultant Dermatologist, Max Multi Speciality Centre, Panchsheel Park, differs a bit on this and says that it’s more appropriate to call them depigmentation creams.
"What they primarily do is work on tyrosinase, a key enzyme in the production of melanin." - Dr Arvind Kaul
Ingredients of Fairness Creams: Bleach, Mercury, Steroids et al
Forget fairness, you’re signing up for so much more when you bring a fairness product in contact with your skin. They might bleach your skin, but might also leave it prone to allergies, acne and other problems.
"Other than hydroquinone, some of these creams also contain harmful chemicals like lead, chromium, nickel and mercury which can damage the skin making it prone to acne, allergies, sun damage and so on." - Dr Pooja Chopra
If this wasn’t enough, add steroids to the cocktail. Steroids is what gives you the ‘instant glow’ many of these creams promise.
"These steroids are responsible for the quick ‘glow’ one experiences on using the cream. However, prolonged use can cause thinning of skin, proneness to acne and premature ageing and dullness of skin instead of rejuvenation." - Dr Pooja Chopra
In some fairness creams that are available over the counter, steroids are used for depigmentation, says Dr Kaul. Mercury too is present in many of these creams. The adverse effects of these are several.
" Adverse effects like redness, irritation, dryness and itching are possible if these creams are used unsupervised. Steroid preparations can result in thinning of skin, stretch marks and acne. Mercury can cause numbness or tingling in your hands and feet, along with irritability and tremors. Hydroquinone-based creams can lead to ochronosis (bluish, black discolouring of tissue), if used for prolonged periods." - Dr Arvind Kaul
Though no molecule by itself can be universally harmful or beneficial, says Dr Kaul, individual sensitivities make some creams worse than others for some people. It is important to consult a dermatologist before to avoid such complications.
Can Fairness Creams be Addictive?
Using a fairness cream is like setting a vicious cycle in motion. Dr Chopra defines it as follows:
"Fairness creams are definitely addictive. The initial response to the bleaching effect of these creams makes the user buy it again and again, causing more harm than good in the long run." - Dr Pooja Chopra
Dr Kaul adds that steroid containing creams, especially when used without medical advice, can be addictive.
While the results by the cream might be fast, they are not permanent or long lasting. Consequently, the consumers tends to return to them to maintain the ‘glow’ of the skin, damaging it further. The usage might sometimes also leave you with lifelong skin problems that might not be reversed even after the use has been discontinued.
Can Fairness Creams be Carcinogenic?
There are no conclusive studies that show a link between cancer and fairness creams. Yet long term usage of one can lead to a particular kind of cancer of skin tissue and cells in the body, affirms Dr Chopra.
"The carcinogenic effect of fairness creams is debatable, but harmful chemicals like lead and mercury may lead to carcinoma (cancer of tissue and cells that line various organs in the body, according to WebMD) over a long period of time." - Dr Pooja Chopra
As such no creams have been proven to be carcinogenic although certain countries have banned hydroquinone based creams, says Dr Kaul.
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