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Skin bleaching: Who says lighter is better?

Published:Wednesday | August 8, 2012 | 8:00 AM

By Dr Arusha Campbell-Chambers

Skin bleaching is the use of chemical substances to try to lighten skin tone or complexion by reducing the amount of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the main substance that gives the skin its colour. It helps to protect the skin from the damaging effects of sunlight, like sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancer.

Darker-skinned individuals generally have more melanin and may have slightly different types of melanin than fairer-skinned people. This gives darker skinned individuals more protection from sun damage. Therefore, when individuals bleach their skin, they are reducing their own natural protection from sun damage. Some of the side effects of skin-bleaching products include:

• skin thinning

• acne

• stretch marks

• visible blood vessels

• skin redness and irritation

• easy bruising of the skin

• skin darkening e.g. around the eyes and on the knuckles

• sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancer

• harmful internal effects.

Social rank and privilege

The practice of skin bleaching has existed for many years worldwide. Historically, lighter skin has been seen as a symbol of beauty, social rank and privilege throughout the world. In 1901, toxic skin-whitening soaps were marketed as antiseptic soaps and, in the 1950s, deaths were recorded from using these soaps. Some Japenese female entertainers (Geishas) painted their skin white while some Chinese women swallowed ground pearls to try to lighten their skin.

Health officials in Jamaica say skin bleaching has been going on for decades. In the Caribbean, lighter skin has been seen by many as associated with a higher social status since the days of slavery. There have been popular phrases like, 'Nutten too black nuh good', 'tar brush ketch im', 'black ugly bwoy', 'high colour' and 'nice browning' which are still being used in society.

Media photos and advertisements often portray individuals with lighter complexions as being more glamourous and desirable. There are even ads on YouTube targeting children with skin whitening products to help them become a 'star'.

An Asian beauty website went as far as to state that 'flawlessly milky skin is to die for'. Some songs blasted on the airwaves continue to promote skin bleaching. There are others who have used their lyrics to discourage this practice and promote self-pride.

Why people bleach

A study by Christopher Charles on Jamaican skin bleachers found the following reasons why they bleach:

• To remove facial blemishes

• To make their faces 'cool' as a result of peer influences

• To lighten their complexion

• To follow a popular fad

• To have the visual stimulus of a bleached skin because it makes them feel good.

The public and private sectors, churches, schools, media, health-care providers, entertainers and everyone, in general, need to spread the message that we should all be comfortable in our own skin. We need to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, educate people about the dangers of skin beaching and promote equality in this beautiful island where we are supposed to be 'out of many one people'.

Dr Arusha Campbell-Chambers is a dermatologist and founder of Dermatology Solutions Skin Clinics & Medi-Spas; email: