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Skin Bleaching, Health, Social And Economic Costs - Ahmed Manjang

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

Skin bleaching or whitening is the act of brightening the skin complexion by using chemical substances that are applied to the skin or administered into the body by other means. The use of skin bleaching agents has its disadvantages in terms of causing harmful effects such as skin disorders like depigmentation, rashes, pimples, discolourations, kidney damaged, cancers, neurological and psychiatric complications depending on how the agents for the skin bleaching are used.

Skin bleaching used interchangeably with skin whitening, or skin lightening is the process of brightening the skin complexion using chemical substances, concoctions or physical treatments. People bleach their skins for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons to increase skin glow, radiance and vibrancy in addition to the lightening. The mechanism of skin lightening influences the amount of melanin in the skin to cause-effect. Melanin is a skin pigment produced within the skin to impart its colour as well as provide protection against ultraviolet (UV) rays of sunlight and other biological effects. Melanin is an omnipresent biological pigment, which is present in mammalian skin, hair, eyes, ears and the nervous system. There are three main classes of melanin; eumelanin, pheomelanin and allomelanins. There is also neuromelanin, the melanin of the nervous system. Eumelanin is usually observed brownish to dark black colour of the skin and hair, while pheomelanin is reddish and yellowish. Many biological systems produce a combination of two types of melanin, red-haired (ginger) people usually have pheomelanin predominantly in their hairs and skins. Many studies have shown that people with pheomelanin as the predominant pigment are susceptible to more photodamage than people with predominant eumelanin in their skin.

Health effect of skin bleaching

Melanin from natural sources has been reported to possess a broad spectrum of biological activities, which include protection against UV radiation, enzymatic lysis, damage by oxidants, resistance to drugs by pathogens, protection of insects against bacteria and antiviral protection. Melanin natural ability to protect against UV rays has been utilised in the production of sunscreens in an attempt to imitate the natural role of these molecules in the skin. The protective effect of sunscreen is rated using the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) scale, and it is thought that a higher SPF value indicates a better protective capacity. All melanin lowering bleaching agents carry potential hazards by intervening in the protective activity of melanin. Mercury-containing skin bleaching agents have been scientifically proven to cause chronic kidney diseases and neurological damage and even psychiatric disorders.

The social effect of skin bleaching

The culture of skin bleaching is intertwined with personal identity, self-image and racial supremacy. Colonial masters have influenced the coloured race,especially the ones colonised to believed that the white skin is an ideal colour that matches superiority and power. The perception impacted widely created obsession with the use of skin bleaching agents among the coloured race and shaped the practice of skin whitening by Negroid and other dark-skinned to emulate the fair skin Caucasians in many aspects of life, skin colour inclusive. The western media also portrays the fair-skinned as higher and more prosperous than the black skin through adverts and other productions.

The widespread use of skin bleaching agents is not without multifaceted adverse effects. In some social settings, some associated this habit with prostitution. Skin bleaching is a prevalent practise among prostitutes as a method to attract the opposite sex. Skin bleaching is widespread among prostitutes and many people who camouflage as fashion designers due to stigma associated with prostitution in our communities. It is not uncommon; some people who are already fair in complexion by nature are found to use bleaching creams to avoid tanning of the skin by the sun.

The default natural texture and colour of human skin represent a trademark of beauty and nature’s protective gift to humankind so that we can adapt optimally with potential environmental insults of our natural environment. This phenomenon is a prime example of natural selection strategy at best, which needs not to be overemphasised.

Skin bleaching chemical substances contain somedangerous chemicals such as mercury, steroids, hydroquinone and host of others that have negative health implications. There is an attitude of some that fairness of skin is associated with intelligence, purity, power and success. In south Asian countries, there was a perception that the skin colour of the white race that were the colonisers was superior to the darker skin colour. Perhaps this could be the reason why some celebrities use skin bleaching creams and make their hair look straight and sometimesridiculously blond like that of the white.

Economic cost

Although the medical and social determinants of this phenomenon have been documented, its price is poorly defined. Hence, there is a great need toevaluate the economic cost of skin bleaching on women's income. One study conducted by Diongue and his colleagues found that 19% of the income of regular skin bleachers goes to the cost of skin bleaching.

To conclude;

1. I will recommend youths should be empowered through the school curricular to be contented and have self-esteem and confidence with their natural skin tone. 2. The harmful effects associated with skin bleaching creams should also be mentioned and boldly emblazoned on the containers when such substances are being advertised even for medical reasons just like in the case of tobacco marketing 3. The media should stop promoting skin bleaching as a means of fostering cosmetic products for commercial purposes by making the white skin colour to sound or look superior to the others4. The sales of skin whitening creams should be banned in the Gambia and Africa at large.

Editors note:

Ahmed Manjang is a Senior Medical Technologist at King Fahad Medical City, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Gunjur Online. Got an opinion article? send it to us at


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