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Fairness in a bottle: The truth behind whitening lotions and creams
Dr Parul Kolhe
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September 18, 2007

Let's face it -- the average Indian is obsessed with a fair complexion. Most dusky Indian beauties would give an arm and a leg to acquire pasty white skin, which we refer to as 'gora-chitta'. It's quite sad to see fresh, smooth-skinned (albeit dark) people ruin the texture and glow of their complexions by using every possible cream, lotion, soap, serum, face pack and what-have-you to become fair. The only ones benefiting from this craze are the fairness product companies who are laughing all the way to the bank. Don't get me wrong -- there are chemicals which work and there are ways to get rid of unwanted pigmentation, but you need to have the correct knowledge of what's good for you and what's not. Check out the ingredients on your fairness product package and read on to get the low-down on what works and what doesn't:

1.Hydroquinone: This is one of the most effective whitening compounds known today. However concentrations used matter immensely and individual skin responses vary. Most over-the-counter fairness products contain very low amounts (less than 1 percent). However, irritation of the skin is so common with this chemical that the US FDA (Food & Dry Association) has plans to ban it. 

Also, here's something that will make you sit up -- overuse of this chemical, ie over months or years, can cause a condition called 'ochronosis', which turns the skin black or greyish-black. In desperation, users apply even more of the fairness cream to get rid of the blackish skin tone and instead end up worsening it, not realising in this vicious cycle that the cream is the culprit, not the cure. The safe way to use hydroquinone is under a dermatologist's guidance, in approved pharmaceutical combinations with other compounds that neutralise the irritation and boost the effects.

2. Kojic Acid: This is a relatively newer discovery -- a Vitamin C derivative that blocks a certain step in the production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the brown pigment present within the layers of skin and is responsible for a dark complexion. Research has shown that only high concentrations of kojic acid, as used by dermatologists in pharmaceutical creams (two percent and above) are effective in blocking melanin production. So commercial products that claim to contain Vitamin C, its derivatives, lemon extracts etc usually have amounts too tiny to be very efficient.

3. Retinoic Acid: This is a Vitamin A derivative that works by peeling off the upper layers of the skin. In the process, dark pigmented skin cells are shed off and the lower layers which come up to take their place are somewhat lighter. Dermatologists use retinoic acid very effectively in combination with hydroquinone and steroid creams to lighten patchy pigmentation, but by itself it can cause iritation. Commercial whitening and anti-ageing products use tiny concentrations and don't incorporate other ingredients that can reduce the chances of skin irritation. If overused, therefore, there is a chance of developing raw, red, burnt-looking skin.

4. Plant Extracts: This is a common term used by most cosmetic brands to include anything and everything from liquorice to bearberry to mulberry to grapeseed to arbutin and practically every other possible fruit and flower essence. Some scientific studies have revealed that liquorice, arbutin and bearberry all possess mild whitening qualities, but the results are never as good as pharmaceutical combinations used medically. These can be used as adjuvant to a medical whitening programme but in themselves they are not dramatically effective. Also, consider these statistics -- a truckload of strawberries is needed to produce one litre of alpha hydroxy acid. So if your product contains a measly one to two percent of a plant extract, how much of an effect can it have?

Apart from all this, there is always a chance of developing irritation, allergies or sun sensitivity by using products that cause you to break out into itchy rashes, redden the skin, cause burning sensations or then sunburn, followed by pigmentation. So if you must use a fairness product, make sure you test it first on a tiny patch of your skin. I won't even insult your intelligence by commenting on fairness soaps and face washes, as common sense will tell you that any whitening chemical they contain will never remain on the skin -- it will get washed off while rinsing. The only darkness they remove is that of dirt.

So if you have a healthy, beautiful, dark complexion, learn to love yourself for what you are and appreciate the good quality of your skin rather than lament over its colour. Pulling a Michael Jackson makeover from black to white is not free from risks and is not possible for everyone. It's a conditioned mindset, enforced by advertisements that translate fair skin into more job opportunities, marriage proposals and movie offers. Remember, the radiance of good health speaks for itself.

Dr Parul S Kolhe is an MBBS, DDV and DNB in dermatology.

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