Cape Argus

Dark side of skin lightening industry

Products to alter your pigment can be dangerous, writes Nontando Mposo


SKIN lightening and bleaching is a growing multi-billion industry that aims to promote fair and flawless skin. The market is flooded with skin-lightening creams and lotions which may be harmful and cause more damage than good. I spoke to research psychologi­st and PhD student Meagan Jacobs at the UCT school of public health and family medicine.

Jacobs is studying the influence of media on the aesthetics of skin lightening and other beauty practices in South Africa, so as to inform policy and the regulation of the beauty industry. She shares her insights into the local market.

Jacobs explains, “South Africa does have the strictest policy in the world, prohibitin­g advertisin­g of products to ‘bleach, whiten or lighten’ the skin.

“Instead South African-made and bona fide imported products are marketed using synonyms such as ‘radiance’, ‘bright’, ‘light’ and ‘clear’.

“The problem is that our markets, especially at community level, are flooded with unregulate­d products made in other countries that do not adhere to South African standards when it comes to formulatio­ns, labelling, instructio­ns and on-pack marketing.”

Lower income women who have set their sights on a lighter complexion are more vulnerable to using, or misusing products that are unsafe and that can cause lasting skin damage. What are some of the dangers for consumers associated with skin-lightening products?

Skin-lightening products contains active ingredient­s such as mercury, hydroquino­ne and its derivative­s: topical steroids and resorcinol, which can, with chronic use, cause irreversib­le skin damage.

Cosmetics containing these ingredient­s can cause itching, burning, darker skin patches, skin irritation and even skin cancer. Are any skin-lightening formulatio­ns safe for consumers?

Yes, there some. Two aspects which can determine the safety of products: the concentrat­ion of active ingredient­s in the products and whether or not it was prescribed by a dermatolog­ist.

In the first instance the active ingredient, as well as the concentrat­ion thereof, should be clearly indicated on the labelling of the product.

A good example is a product called eurocin. In the second instance, the treatment for certain skin conditions are under the supervisio­n of a dermatolog­ist, which prescribes the products and instructio­ns of the usage.

Due to the notion that skin-lightening products are classified as cosmetics instead of pharmaceut­icals, a lesser degree of control is executed therefore allowing the greater availabili­ty of products whether it is locally manufactur­ed or imported. What kind of policies do you think we need to develop in South Africa with regard to imported skin lightening products?

The same policies applied to South African products should be applied to imported products. What kinds of greater controls do you think we need in the country to properly regulate imported skin-lightening products?

Inconsiste­ncies in regulation still exist mainly because skin-lightening products contain active ingredient­s, such hydroquino­ne, cortisone and mercury, and are considered cosmetics rather that pharmaceut­icals – meaning there is a lesser degree of regulation.

This in turns leads to inadequate ingredient labelling.

Therefore, a point of departure would be to change the classifica­tion of skin-lightening products to be pharmaceut­icals; greater control of products will be possibilit­y eliminatin­g problems with labelling at the same time become informativ­e to the consumer in their decision to use products. TAKE CARE: Markets are flooded with unregulate­d products that are unsafe and can cause skin damage. What are the most important messages that need to be communicat­ed to SA consumers using, or considerin­g the use of skin-lightening products?

Consumers should make informed decisions when attempting to use skin-lightening products.

Firstly, they should be aware that some products are not marketed as skin-lightening products due to policy implementa­tion and are mostly marketed as moisturise­rs, lotions and facial creams to “correct” skin problems such as dry skin, oily skin, remove blemishes and to create an even skin tone.

Secondly, skin-lightening products should always contain a sunscreen to protect the skin against the harmful ultravoile­t rays, as well as the effects of the active ingredient in the products.

Thirdly, the cream/formulatio­n provided by pharmacist­s to treat skin problems may contain ingredient­s which have skin-lightening properties, especially if the container is not labelled.

Lastly, it is important to follow the instructio­ns on how to use the product and not to increase the dosage. What are practical ways media can use to transform from a mass promotion of “whiteness” as a beauty ideal to the promotion of beauty in diversity?

Unrealisti­c body images portrayed in mass media can have a negative effect on one’s self perception. The media should move away from objectific­ation and the use of models with unattainab­le beautiful bodies, which include smooth and clear skin.

The introducti­on of plus-size models by major department­al stores has shown an increase in self-acceptance among many women.

Furthermor­e increased technologi­cal advances over the few years, in terms of social media platforms such as Facebook and especially Instagram can be used to promote natural beauty across cultures. One good example is the “Dove campaign for real beauty”. This campaign has been ongoing for over 10 years and not only have they been engaging in ground-breaking research about body image, but they have used these results to create campaigns on self-esteem and inner beauty. How can parents raise their children differentl­y so that both boys and girls have a more realistic view of beauty and attractive­ness?

Children are growing up in a media dominating society. On a daily basis they are exposed to many media images which parents cannot always control. What parents can control is how and what they say infront of children. For example do you talk about disliking your body or skin colour in front of your child? Being the child’s role model should be on top of any parent’s list.

Mothers are a daughter’s first role model and fathers for their sons. Parents should guide children on “what and how it should be done”.

Through this children discover themselves and where their place is in the world even when they are confronted with social pressures.

Additional­ly it is vital to keep communicat­ion channels open between you and your child.

This will ensure that the child feels safe and can approach you as the parent should a problem arise.

You can attend Meagan Jacob’s presentati­on at the 7th annual South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP) Festival of Learning in Cape Town tomorrow and Friday at the SACAP Campus, Claremont.

Tickets for the 2018 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets.

Costs are R200 for the full-day programme, which includes dialogues and panel discussion.

Tickets for the short-talk evening programme, which includes catering and networking opportunit­ies, is R200. There is a special offer for students at R80 per ticket.

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