Who’s The Fairest Of Them All?

Skin-lightening cosmetics are all the rage in Asia. What’s the science behind them and could they be doing more harm than good?

AsianScientist (Sep. 18, 2012) – All across Asia fair skin is highly prized. In dark-skinned South Asia, a fair complexion is considered the epitome of beauty while in already pale-skinned North and East Asia, pearly translucent white skin is a sign of affluence and glamour.

“Skin whitening has a long history in Asia, stemming back to ancient China,” said Li Yanbing, vice-secretary general of the Chamber of Beauty Culture and Cosmetics of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, in an interview with China Daily. “And the saying, ‘One white covers up one hundred ugliness,’ was passed through the generations.”

In Asia, many people associate dark and tanned skin with menial work in the fields under the hot sun, and a pale complexion with a higher social standing and cultural refinement.

As a result, there has been a growing demand for creams and treatments that purport to lighten skin tones, a phenomenon the cosmetics juggernauts have been quick to capitalize upon.

A lucrative and burgeoning market

The beauty business in the Asia-Pacific region is estimated to be worth an enormous US$80 billion and the skin-lightening market alone is valued at over US$13 billion.

Since the 1970s, Asia has been the fastest growing sector in the global skin-lightening market. Asia is a lucrative market with high-growth potential because of a rising middle-class with increasing disposable income and centuries-old entrenched cultural impressions of beauty.

India’s domestic cosmetics industry is set to grow to US$3.6 billion by 2014, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. The skin-lightening cream market alone was worth US$432 million in 2010 and growing at 18 percent annually.

In China, where the skin care market is worth more than 35 billion yuan (US$5.5 billion), whitening products comprise a whopping 71 percent of the market. Elsewhere in Asia, a survey by the London-based market research firm Synovate found that four out of ten women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan use a skin whitening cream.

The cosmetics industry has also started to target men, selling them the same idea that a fairer complexion would make them more attractive. While skin-lightening products for women have been available for decades, products for men have only appeared in recent years, a trend that is rapidly growing.

Just pay a visit to any pharmacy or chemist in Asia and you’re almost certain to find a dedicated men’s skin care section with a growing selection of skin-lightening products on offer.

A look into your favorite skin-lightening cream

Skin lightening is a well-established procedure and many of the active ingredients found in commercial skin-lightening creams have been successfully used by dermatologists to treat hyperpigmentation. Yet, despite rising incomes in Asia, many still cannot afford professional skin lightening treatments offered by dermatologists.

Over-the-counter creams and lotions are an affordable alternative. However, in such formulations, the concentration of active ingredients is often too low to be useful. Moreover, over-enthusiastic use without the supervision of a dermatologist can be dangerous.

One common active ingredient found in skin-lightening creams is niacinamide, a vitamin B3 derivative that functions by inhibiting the transfer of melanin from cells that produce it to your skin cells at the surface. Niacinamide is the active ingredient in Fair and Lovely, an face cream launched in 1978 that kick started the skin lightening industry in India.

Another ingredient is retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative that stimulates the sloughing off of the upper epidermal layers, which include the dark-pigmented skin cells. Unfortunately, it can also cause skin sensitivity in sunlight, leading to raw and red skin. Alpha hydroxy acids function in a similar way, prompting exfoliation of the skin.

One of the most effective commercially available whitening agents is hydroquinone, a chemical that inhibits melanin production in the skin. But overuse of hydroquinone over months or years may cause exogenous ochronosis, a skin condition which manifests as bluish-black hyperpigmentation.

Ochronosis can occur even with small dosages of hydroquinone, as low as two percent. As can be expected, users suffering from ochronosis use even more lightening cream, only to worsen the effects of the disease. It is a sad fact that exogenous ochronosis is an avoidable condition that is difficult to treat.

Finally, kojic acid is relatively new addition to the cosmetics industry drugs cabinet and is now a commonly found ingredient in lightening creams. Kojic acid is a vitamin C derivative that, like hydroquinone, blocks a step in melanin production in the skin. However, most commercial creams contain too low a concentration of the chemical in order to be effective.

While this is far from an exhaustive examination of skin-lightening products, the fact remains that not much is known about the potential long-term effects of these products. Unfortunately, until long-term studies are performed, the cosmetics industry is free to promote their products in any way they wish.

So are cosmetic products dangerous or safe in the long term? The jury is still out, says Dr. Joeeta Basu, a researcher from New Delhi’s Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research in Al Jazeera, who noted that “studies have not been conducted over many years to study if these [skin-lightening agents] have harmful effects, so [they] cannot be condemned conclusively for any toxicity until proven.”

What’s wrong with a little enhancement?

On one side of the debate, critics have accused the cosmetics industry of pandering to stereotypes about race, caste, and gender.

In India, the quest for fairer skin has expanded to include a woman’s intimate bits. A vaginal wash was recently launched that promised women fairer private parts, causing a stir and prompting a national debate on the perceived norms of beauty.

In a short 20 seconds, the television advertisement for Clean and Dry gives the impression that a woman with a darker nether region is unhappy whereas she with a fair down-there finds love and fulfillment. The tagline reads: “Life for women will now be fresher, cleaner and more importantly, fairer and more intimate.”

On the other side of the divide, supporters of skin-lightening products claim that critics are being hypocritical when they slam the industry.

Cosmetic enhancement comes in many forms where some are seen to be acceptable and even encouraged while others are deemed to be reinforcing a distorted view of aesthetics, they say.

“Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer – so what’s the problem?” said Alyque Padasee, director of the Clean and Dry advertisement, as reported by the BBC.

The problem comes when fairness-obsessed users plunge headlong into their quest for a perfect pearlescent complexion without, or perhaps despite, knowledge of the potential side effects.

It is apparent the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry is throwing its weight behind advertising and promotion of skin-lightening products in Asia, its fastest growing market. Many consumers buy into the hype and promise of glamour without paying much attention to the small print.

While the debate continues over the moral ethics of perpetuating the centuries-old belief that ‘fairer is better,’ more should be done to educate consumers on their purchases.

Raising awareness can make a difference, if only to teach consumers to be skeptical when approaching astounding claims of whitening success, and to do a little background research on their own before making an informed decision.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: nickgraywfu/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

David Tan is a post-doctoral researcher at the A*STAR Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore. David received a PhD in stem cell biology from the University of Cambridge, UK.

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