side of fair
Leela, aged 60 has had a smooth beautiful skin all her life. Middling
brown, in colour she was one of those lucky women whom age had not
caught up with, her skin and even her arms showing no trace of her
A tap on her door one fateful morning however drastically altered her
hitherto unblemished skin.
When she opened the door she found it was a door to door sales
person, who said he was trying to promote a new cream made by a well
known local manufacturer I was familiar with.
Would she like to volunteer participating in some trial experiments
where a free facial was being offered, he asked showing her a list of
other volunteers whose ages ranged from 20 to 60.
“To this day I don’t know what possessed me to agree. Perhaps it was
his slick sales talk. Or the fact that I had never had a facial before
and thought I should try one even at this age,” a contrite Leela says,
recalling the moment when her hitherto happy life turned into a
The cream, she was promised would make her fairer and younger. What
actually happened however was a disaster that could have easily turned
For within hours of her facial, Leela developed a severe allergic
reaction to the whitening cream, which caused a burning sensation all
over her body. A relation who had dropped by rushed her to the hospital
where she remained as an inpatient for a couple of days.
Now ten years on, after several visits to a skin specialist, Leela’s
once beautiful skin has turned dark. Under her eyes and on one side of
her face is a black patch, which claims has got lighter over the years
but never disappeared.
* Dehini 24 is another victim of a facial cream that did not agree
with her. Once a whitening cream addict, she now avoids such creams
after her doctor warned her against their use.
*Roshini 37 has been using whitening creams on her face since the age
of 17. Just last month she says, she decided to give up using them after
her doctor warned her she could develop chronic skin cancer beside a
host of other medical problems.
*Her friend Swarna, who uses a local herbal face cream, has developed
severe acne and her dermatologist has warned the cream she is using
could contain steroids that could cause deterioration of the skin and
Beauty : is it only skin deep?
Awareness raising among habitual users of
whitening creams is the answer to any adverse effects they
could cause, says Dr Mohamed Infas from the College of
Chemical Sciences, who is co-ordinating a seminar to be held
on June 3 titled: ‘ Beauty : is it only skin deep?’
In a press release, he says, “The use of
cosmetics is not a modern phenomenon. Ancient Egyptian women
used kohl to darken their eyelids and Cleopatra is said to
have bathed in milk to whiten and soften her skin. More than
3,000 years ago, Greek women used poisonous carbonate to
achieve a pale complexion costing some of the users their
lives. Today, cosmetics are a big business and part of a
person’s everyday life. However, the science behind these
products is unknown to the consumer. Both males and females
alike use cosmetics because they have an anti aging
properties, sun protection and infection control.”
The seminar will gather representatives
from the Cosmetics Industry, Research institutions, chemical
and Medical (toxicology and dermatology) specialists, and is
open to the public .
Senior Dermatologist NHS, Dr Chalukya
Gunesekera: Misleading labelling as well as labelling which
cannot be understood by the users is a big problem. Many
imported products come with labels and instructions written
in languages other than English, which the user cannot
comprehend. In addition, expiry dates are often missing
which is another problem.
The indiscriminate use of leaching agents
by women is also a big problem. Some women prefer to make
their own home concoctions to become fair. For this they use
bleaching agents. These agents can damage their skin if used
without proper advice.”
The woeful tales of these women, whose names have been changed to
protect their identity, is told and retold across the country and across
the globe, as women buy into the skewered belief that ‘fair’ is the
synonym for ‘beautiful’ ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ and go to extreme
lengths to acquire that ‘fair’.
While the question ‘why’ colourism still continues to plague 21st
century society needs careful study, far more immediate is the need to
ensure that harmful products don’t masquerade as harmless beauty aids,
placing women in life threatening situations.
What are these skin whitening products made of, what causes creams to
have such deadly health impacts?
According to the Head of the Toxicology Information Unit at the
National Hospital, Dr. Waruna Gunathilake the culprit is mercury. “Most
whitening creams have mercury which can block the melanocytes, a pigment
cell on the skin Its presence in fairness creams causes several health
issues such as a degeneration of the skin level, making it thin and
vulnerable to exposure in the sun,” he says, warning that prolonged use
of these creams can lead to skin cancer.
In tropical countries including Sri Lanka, he says sun exposure is
very high “What protects us from the adverse effects of too much sun is
our dark skin.
We are dark because we have more melanocytes, which is the black
pigment hat gives us natural protection against the harmful rays of the
sun, unlike in European countries where people don’t have much
melanocyte pigment,” he explains, reiterating his warning that constant
use of whitening creams will lead to skin degeneration ( excoriation)
and loss of skin elasticity and skin sagging . “If very high, it can
cause skin cancer.”.
However, regardless of these adverse health impacts, the fairness
industry continues to use various ingredients including mercury that
block the melanin forming melanocytes. “You can become fairer, but at
what cost?” he asks. Steroids, he says have a similar effect on the skin
as whitening creams, but adds, that they can also cause irritation,
acute reactions and skin damage as they have a blocking effect on the
“If you suspect the face cream you use contains a harmful ingredient,
check it out with your skin doctor,” he advised.
He also urged consumers to beware of face creams from Thailand and
India that are illegally flooding this country, even though they have
been banned in those countries.
His colleague, Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology,
Colombo University, and the founder Head of the National Poisons
Information Unit at the NHS, Prof. Revindra Fernando underscores this
“A few years ago, American health officials warned consumers not to
use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might
contain mercury,” he says, pointing out that the products are marketed
as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments that remove age spots,
freckles, blemishes and wrinkles and that adolescents also may use these
products as acne treatments.
Dangers of exposure to mercury
Commenting on the danger of exposure to mercury, he emphasises they
could have serious health consequences. “It can damage the kidneys and
the nervous system. It can interfere with the development of the brain
in unborn children and very young children. People, particularly
children, can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury
vapours if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing
mercury. Infants and small children can ingest mercury if they touch
their parents who have used these products, get cream on their hands and
then put their hands and fingers into their mouth, which they are prone
When questioned about typical signs and symptoms of mercury
poisoning, he responds.
“They include irritability, tremors, changes in vision or hearing,
memory problems, depression and numbness and tingling in hands, feet or
Using creams and soaps to lighten skin tone, face freckles or get rid
of age spots are widely used in African countries. An investigation that
involved interviewing Somali women living in USA about skin-lightening
practices and the products they use and then testing those products for
mercury showed that out of twenty-seven samples of products purchased at
markets in two cities, 47% were found to contain mercury, he notes.
So, if you are one of those persons who constantly use whitening
cream on your face to make your dark skin fair and more attractive, you
should think again.
They may hold the promise of making you fairer and lovelier,
magically transforming overnight your dull dark skin with a shine that
makes you the envy of your friends,. But in the long run, they can have
deadly effects both on your skin and your general health.