Home Society & Culture Skin Whitening Practices Are on the Rise Despite Known Health Risks, Reveals New Study

Skin Whitening Practices Are on the Rise Despite Known Health Risks, Reveals New Study

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Recent studies highlight a worrying trend in the increasing popularity of skin whitening and bleaching creams worldwide. Despite well-documented health risks, the demand for these products continues to grow, particularly in regions with predominantly darker-skinned populations. The findings were published in the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy.

The practice of skin whitening has historical roots but has seen a significant resurgence in recent years. This trend is especially prevalent in Africa and Asia, where lighter skin is often culturally and socially prized. Researchers from the Medical University of Gdansk used Google Trends data to analyse global interest in skin whitening over a ten-year period, from September 2013 to August 2023. The study focused on two key terms: “hydroquinone cream” and “mercury cream”, both of which are commonly used in skin whitening products​​.

The active ingredients in many skin whitening products, particularly hydroquinone and mercury, pose serious health risks. Hydroquinone, used for its skin lightening properties, can cause dermatitis, nail discolouration, and ocular problems. Long-term use can lead to exogenous ochronosis, a condition where the skin becomes dark and thick. Mercury, another common ingredient, inhibits melanin production but accumulates in the body, leading to nephrotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and gastrointestinal issues​​.

These substances are banned in cosmetic products in many countries, including those in the European Union and the United States. However, they are still widely available online and in certain markets where regulatory oversight is less stringent. Products often contain concentrations of these chemicals that exceed safe levels, posing significant health risks to users​​.

The study revealed distinct regional variations in the popularity of skin whitening searches. Sudan, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka topped the list for the highest search volumes for “skin whitening”. In contrast, searches in countries like France, Germany, Mexico, and Spain were significantly lower​​.

In terms of specific substances, hydroquinone creams were generally more popular than mercury creams, except in the Philippines and Indonesia. This preference was attributed to cultural factors and the historical use of hydroquinone in skin lightening treatments since the 1960s. Despite the known risks, hydroquinone remains widely sought after, often without medical supervision​​.

The motivations behind the use of skin whitening products are deeply rooted in socioeconomic and cultural factors. In many Asian and African societies, lighter skin is associated with higher social status, better job prospects, and increased marital opportunities. This perception drives many individuals to use skin whitening products, often disregarding the potential health consequences​​.

A survey among female students in Malaysia found that over 60% had used skin whitening products, with many experiencing adverse effects. Despite the widespread use, there was a notable lack of awareness about the dangers associated with these products. Similar trends were observed in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, where a significant portion of the population uses skin whitening creams regularly​​.

The internet and social media platforms play a significant role in the proliferation of skin whitening products. Many users purchase these products online, often based on information from social media influencers and online reviews. This trend makes it challenging to regulate the sale and distribution of harmful products, as they can easily bypass local regulations​​.

The findings of the study underscore the need for increased education and stricter regulation regarding the use of skin whitening products. Public health campaigns should focus on raising awareness about the risks associated with these products and promoting safer alternatives. Regulatory bodies need to enforce stricter controls on the sale of products containing harmful substances like hydroquinone and mercury, particularly in regions where these products are most popular​​.

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