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Skin whitening, also known as skin bleaching, is trending globally in the beauty industry. This is especially common among dark-skinned people who believe that having a lighter skin colour makes one more beautiful.
But have you ever wondered about the health implications of bleaching the skin? Or even how the act of skin bleaching can affect vital organs in the body like the kidneys?
Indeed, after bleaching, the skin may look amazing in the short term, but we can’t say the same in the long term. Bleaching your skin will make it lighter in complexion; however, it can cause serious health complications such as kidney problems in the long run.
What is skin bleaching and how does it work?
Skin bleaching is the process of using creams, gels, soaps, pills, injections, or professional treatments such as laser therapy and chemical peels to achieve a lighter skin tone.
The skin pigment most affected in the bleaching process is Melanin. Skin bleaching products work by reducing the concentration and production of melanin to make the skin lighter in complexion.
The amount of melanin produced in the body is what determines if you will be light or dark-skinned. Melanin also helps to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and reduces the risk of skin cancer. Melanin is produced in higher concentrations in dark-skinned individuals, and it is what gives them a darker skin tone.
Does Skin Bleaching have any benefits?
Skin bleaching doesn’t have any health benefits. People mostly do it for cosmetic reasons, such as to:
• lighten age spots and blemishes
• reduce the appearance of acne scars and freckles
• even out or alter their skin tone
• help them to feel more attractive, desirable, and confident
What is Contained in Skin Bleaching Products?
There are different active ingredients in skin bleaching products. Some of these ingredients may be more effective than others, while the rest may be ineffective or even contain toxic chemicals that have harmful side effects.
Most skin bleaching products contain:
Hydroquinone is a common bleaching agent used in treating hyperpigmentation and discoloration. The excessive and prolonged use of bleaching creams containing hydroquinone may result in exogenous ochronosis, a skin condition that causes blue-black pigmentation.
Excessive use of hydroquinone in addition to certain foods such as eggs, fish, and beans may cause some people’s body secretions such as urine and sweat to have an unpleasant fishy smell.
Hydroquinone in skin bleaching products is sometimes listed in the ingredients with other names, such as: Hydroquinol, 1, 4-Benzenediol, Quinol, p-Diphenol, Hydrochinone, Benzene-1,4-diol, Tequinol, Hydrochinonium, p-Dihydroxyl benzene, and p-Hydroxylphenol.
• Topical retinoid
Topical retinoid is mainly found in bleaching products as “tretinoin”. It reduces the production of melanin and thins the skin to allow other agents to penetrate the skin. It has a high risk in pregnancy and can cause contact irritant dermatitis.
• Steroids and corticosteroid creams
These are found as over-the-counter medications for treating different skin issues such as eczema and ringworms. They can also be used for bleaching the skin. Prolonged usage can result in side effects such as skin thinning, stretch marks, and steroid addiction syndrome, which can cause steroid rosacea and folliculitis.
This is a skin-lightening agent in creams used in treating hyperpigmentation and bleaching the whole skin. Cysteamine cream is applied on the skin for 15 minutes daily, after which it is washed off, and moisturizer can be applied. This is done for about 12 weeks. To maintain the result, Cysteamine cream is often applied twice weekly.
Cysteamine cream can cause temporary inflammation, dryness, and irritation to the skin.
• Natural skin lightening agents from plants
Some skin-lightening agents found in today’s cosmetics are natural ingredients derived from plants. These ingredients seem to help prevent melanin production without harming the melanocyte. They include:
• Kojic acid – a compound derived from a fungus
• Morus alba extract – extract from white mulberry
• Arbutin – obtained from various plants
• Proanthocyanidin – found in grapeseed extract
• Pycnogenol – from the bark of French maritime pine
• Cinnamic acid – from cinnamon
• Licorice extract – obtained from the root of Glycyrrhiza Glabra Linnera
• Others include vitamin C, vitamin E, soy protein, green tea extract, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
• Injections for skin bleaching
Although the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC) warns that injections for skin bleaching may be unsafe, people still use them. The injection given for skin lightening is Glutathione. No research reveals that this injection is effective, so anyone using them is taking a big risk.
Mercury is a heavy metal that exists in liquid form. It was found as the active ingredient in most skin bleaching products in the early 20th century before it was discovered that it is toxic. Mercury can deactivate the enzyme that produces melanin. When it accumulates in the body, it leads to mercury poisoning and causes severe neurological, psychiatric, and kidney problems.
How skin bleaching can affect your kidney
Skin bleaching products containing mercury have been linked to a kidney disorder known as nephrotic syndrome. A 2021 study revealed that mercury absorbed through the skin can result in mercury poisoning-induced nephrotic syndrome.
Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder caused by damage to kidney nerves that are responsible for filtering waste and water from the blood and balancing salt and mineral levels. This causes the body to excrete more protein than it should into your urine.
Symptoms of nephrotic syndrome include:
• foamy urine
• loss of appetite
• swollen feet and ankles
• swelling around the eyes
Note that mercury poisoning can also affect unborn and new born babies as it can be passed from the mother to the unborn child or from the mother’s skin to that of the baby.
Also, Hydroquinone is not left out when it comes to bleaching agents that adversely affect the kidney. A study published in the journal Toxicologic Pathology, suggests that prolonged use of hydroquinone may result in kidney failure.
There is no medical reason you should bleach your skin as you risk damaging your kidneys and other vital organs and tissues of the body when you do so.
If you must lighten your skin, make sure you are doing so through the guidance of a certified dermatologist. If you are unsure of how to access the right and safe skincare guidance, consult a doctor for expert advice on the best product or treatment option that is most suitable for your skin type.
- Medically reviewed by Dr. Gbenga Ogunfowokan