Skin whitening  is BIG business in the cosmetics industry and so it is no surprise that the research dollars keep pouring in to this market segment. Both ingredient manufacturers and big multinational brand owners are on the hunt for more efficacious ingredients in the bid to find a ‘safe’ and often ‘natural’ alternative to the brutal and potentially disfiguring hydroquinone (which I will talk about briefly later). The reason for the boom in whitening ingredients and formulations is the move towards seeing an even skin tone as a sign of youth. Many of us lust after luminous, bright and light complexions with no age or sun spots and no hyperpigmentation and that is understandable.  A clear and even complexion is a very visible and obvious sign of good health and vitality but it is not all good news.

Read all about it here: Sydney Morning Herald Vaseline ‘lightens up’ faces

The other side of this ‘trend’ is the growing demand for whiter skin in non-white populations and I find this very concerning.  Whitening products have long been popular in Asia and parts of Africa as darker skin has historically been seen as a mark of low social status exaggerated  by hard manual labour and outdoor work.  This prejudice is still alive and well in many communities of colour and is being bolstered by the unrelenting influx of barbie-like western imagery and marketing.  I have felt uncomfortable with this side of skin lightning for a long time and new technical innovations  are making me even more nervous as you will see.

Our skin gets its colour from two places 1) our genes and 2) the environment.   Our genetic colour is an expression of our history, our culture, our identity and is passed on through our genes through the ages.  Our environmental colour is something that we pick up along our travels either from the sun, from the effect of pregnancy hormones, skin trauma or illness, ageing or from our reaction to foods that we eat.  When we are young much of this colour comes and goes leaving the canvas almost as blank as when it started but as we age our history and life choices leave us a little more splattered.  Looking good post 30 may well require the use of an eraser, nice!

So how do we go about whitening it?

As mentioned in the first paragraph, the first widely used skin whitener was hydroquinone – a bleaching agent!  Hydroquinone literally bleaches your skin by killing off the underlying melanocytes (cells that make melanin).  These results are permanent and leave the skin vulnerable to future environmental damage which I would argue is more worrying than a bit of benign pigmentation but that’s just me.

After hydroquinone came a whole raft of whitening agents which span from physical and chemical exfolliants (they take off the old, dull and pigmented skin), chemical skin whiteners that turn off the environmental pathway for skin whitening, stopping us tanning – Arbutin, Bearberry,  Kojic acid and sunscreens to protect the skin from the environment.  All of these work really well to reduce the appearance of ‘environmental’ colouring but none of these have been able to do much to affect a persons natural or genetic colour until now.

New skin whitening actives including one that I saw today based on an encapsulated peptide CAN affect our base skin colour as they work via a different biological pathway. This has caused mass excitement within the walls of the worlds biggest brands who are working furiously in their labs to perfect these new formulations.  The active that I saw had been found to lighten natural skin tone by a significant amount, taking a light brown skin to an almost white and a dark brown to a more latte colour.   Great for science but is it great for our wellbeing?

Well, as I have said I have a real problem with this. Being quite white myself and a chemist I started to feel more than a little uncomfortable at the prospect of this one-colour future as it goes against everything that is good about our planet – diversity, colour, life, variety.  Eugenics? No thank you.  Lightening pigmentation marks is one thing but lightning EVERYTHING is a whole new (and expensive) ball game.  Health wise these actives have all been proven to be safe, reversible and non-toxic but nothing much is said about the fact that skin stripped of some of its melanin is vulnerable to irritation, sun damage and environmental pollution.  Are people really going to choose whiter skin over having fun under the sun? 

I would like us all to stop and think about skin colour before we invest our hard-earned dollars into more whitening creams. Black skin, white skin and every skin in between has a place on MY planet and I am sure that it has a place on yours too so let us celebrate it naturally and be proud of who we are.  In addition to that we need to think about our relationship with ageing. Again, erasing age spots and pigmentation marks will help us to look and feel younger but it must be tackled sensibly.  Luminous, ultrawhite, blank-canvas skin may look good in the Twilight films but isn’t so becoming on Aunty May – let her grow old with grace and colour!

I am not saying don’t use skin whiteners but what I am saying is that it is time for us all to stop and rethink our motives and the messages that we are sending to our children.  Play with your canvas, don’t deny that it exists.