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Lighter, brighter skin.

October 15, 2009

Why is  it hat it now seems almost impossible to go to the beauty counter without being offered some white out?

Historically speaking many cultures have seen lighter skin as a sign of wealth due to the relationship between sun exposure and skin pigmentation.  Ladies of English high society would whiten their faces with a lead or mercury based paint using a formulation that was probably made popular in Roman times. In Japan, Geisha were defined as much by their beautiful Kimono as by their powdery white faces and red lips. Again, the white face cream was originally lead based until it was found to be linked with poisoning after which it was based on a rice powder.  Another popular skin whitening trick across Asia was to crush up pearl sea shells and drink them. The Japanese saying “Iro no shiroi no wa shichi nan kakusu” translates to “A white complexion hides many defects”  (Japanese proverbs and sayings, Daniel Buchanan) says it all!

However, for western cultures this rule of thumb was turned on its head in when the jet set started to jet set in the 1920’s.  A glowing tan became a status symbol and a calling card for luxury. However, it seemed like the fun had only just began when the downside of too much sun started to ruin the party. The first sunscreen was probably made by Piz Buin in the 20’s but  it wasn’t until the second world war that sunscreen use became de rigueur, at least withing the combat zone.  Trench foot in WWI was replaced by desert nose in WWII although those not facing combat would have to wait until the 1970’s for their sun tan lotions to grow an SPF factor – tan enhancers and tan excelerator milks were big business up to now. Being whiter than white was not a fashionable option.

Somewhere between the 1970’s and the naughties  those white bodies wanting to look brown and the brown bodies wanting to look  became focused on something much more widespread than poverty and more scary than not reaching the top of the social climbers ladder,  something that impacts us all.  Ageing.

My grandparents and aunties had age spots – they called them liver spots and I always imagined them being caused by cooking too much liver and onions (a common dinner during my English childhood).  They didn’t seem to care too much about them or about the other “signs” of ageing to which their bodies were succumbing. They just got on with being. However,  we now have it drummed into us that an even skin colour is as important to our youthfulness as a crease free face or baby plump cheeks and lips.   Pigmentation changes due to ageing happen to us all, whatever our colour or lifestyle and we have decided en mass to defend our right to our blank canvas!

Is this move to lighter, brighter skin a bad thing biologically?  I think that it quite possibly could be.  And psychologically?  I would have to agree there. Why?

Biologically speaking to rid our skin of uneven pigmentation caused by melanin involves either bleaching the skin or getting a chemical right into the heart of the skin to mess with melanin production. Hydroquinone  is one of the classic ingredients that is still used today in Australia (within guidelines ) but has been banned or severely restricted in other geographies due to concerns over its long term safety.  Mercury and lead were never good choices as they can penetrate the skin, get into the blood stream and cause major organ failure over time.  However, our penchant for all things natural has led to a flurry of activity in cosmetic laboratories around the world and we now have actives with enticing names such as: Bearberry, Licorice extract,  Kojic acid, Mulberry, Niacinamide, Arbutin and Lemon extract. These ingredients work at various points in the melanin chain and most of the effects of these actives are reversible – once the cream runs out your system goes back to “normal” whatever that it!

When purchasing a skin lightening cream you will usually find it laden with a blend of the above actives as none of the above work quite as well as Hydroquinone at whitening the skin. This combination approach also takes advantage of the synergistic effects seen by putting two technologies together.  Whitening creams may also contain a SPF or at least contain a warning on the bottle that while using the product, you should avoid or limit sun exposure. This is because you have just switched off one of your skin’s key protection mechanisms. Good idea?

Psychologically, while it is perfectly reasonable for us all to want to rid ourselves of a patchy skin tone or to brighten up our complexions with a little spit and polish,  people being people these products are often used to “cure” something that doesn’t need curing. There have been thousands of cases of permanent skin damage across the world caused by skin lightening creams being misused or by the creams being badly  or illegally formulated (usually the bootleg versions).  Further to that, people of colour are often using skin lightening creams to conform to unrealistic and unhealthy role models.  Those vulnerable are feeling the pressure to rebel against the skin that they are sporting and opt for something altogether un-natural.  One would hope that this is one fashion that is on the wain.

So, will a lighter, brighter skin make you feel and look younger? Maybe but remember that your newly ‘naked’ skin will need extra UV protection and personally, I can’t see anything wrong in a bit of colour.

laughing people

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 3:45 am

    My skin is quite light for someone of Chinese descent and I remember growing up being made to EAT (not drink) pearl powder by my auntie to “preserve” my light skin. Didn’t taste too bad. I thought it taste more like chalks or calcium tablets.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      October 16, 2009 6:14 am

      And did it work? Pearl powdered extract is quite often used in skin lightening formulations but I always assumed it was to make them sound more exotic! Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Herbert Heidrick permalink
    November 2, 2012 9:14 pm

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