The desire for having lighter, whiter skin can be traced back through the years and has influenced many nationalities. Japanese as well as Victorian European women (and sometimes men) used arsenic and other poisonous lead based potions to achieve an extremely pale complexion which was seen as a sign of high social class. Maasai Warriors covered themselves in a white clay paste for sun protection and also to signify peace and non-violence. Thankfully, today we welcome diversity and are able to recognise beauty in all manner of looks and skin tones. However, some cultures still regard having lighter skin as a symbol of beauty and power.
What Determines our Skin Colour?
We all have the pigment melanin in our skin and the more melanin we have, the darker our skin. Being exposed to sunlight, certain chemicals and hormonal activity resulting from pregnancy, the contraceptive pill and menopause, can all play a part in colour changes in the skin such as tanning, discolouration and age spots.
Is Skin Lightening Safe?
A respected skin specialist or dermatologist would never suggest obtaining a lightening cream or product over the counter without knowing the safety of its ingredients. In fact, a survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found that 16% of dermatologists believe lightening creams to be totally unsafe, and 80% feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist. Although you may find creams developed by recognised cosmetic brands in the beauty aisles that contain the words ‘brightening’ and ‘lightening’ they very much pertain to ingredients which may give skin a more even, smoother texture and tone, rather than those which go down the often dangerous route of skin bleaching.
What is Skin Bleaching?
Unless you have a skin condition such as severe eczema, vitiligo or psoriasis, it is highly unlikely that a skin specialist would prescribe a bleaching product to use solely for cosmetic reasons. These conditions are treated under the guidance of a dermatologist or GP who can monitor the patient to be sure that the powerful lightening ingredients do not cause adverse reactions. Illegal use of products containing bleaching agents such as hydroquinone (banned for use in cosmetics) and mercury (a toxic agent banned in the U.S) or high dose steroids, should be avoided at all costs as they can cause serious health risks such as kidney and neurological damage, particularly if their use is not being monitored.
Ingredients to Improve Skin Tone
If you decide to try a range of skincare that will help prevent and improve skin discolouration, here is a list of safe ingredients to look out for:
- Ascorbic acid or Vitamin C – Blocks pigment production.
- Licorice extract – disperses melanin in the skin.
- Kojic acid – derived from mushrooms, this is an effective natural alternative to hydroquinone.
- Arbutin – extracted from the bearberry plant, this stops growth of melanin producing cells.
The Safe way to Lighter Skin
Although I do not personally recommend treating the skin specifically to lighten it, I often advise clients on a three pronged approach which can deliver a smoother, brighter and more luminous looking complexion by dealing with hyperpigmentation and dark patches:
External products: I recommend a topical Vitamin C in the morning to break down pigment with Vitamin A at night to stimulate new skin cell production as well as daily use of SPF 30.
Internal: Internal inflammation can often drive pigmentation and I prescribe and anti inflammatory diet with high strength antioxidant supplements to be taken daily, specifically Glutathione which is able to help detoxify and repair cell damage.
- Treatments: A course of chemical peels can resurface the skin, improving dark patches and bringing the skin back to its natural tone in the best health.