Skin lightening is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler tone that is practiced disproportionately amongst people of colour.
Hydroquinone is an aromatic organic compound and a well-known molecule used in the treatment of pigmentation disorders and as a common ingredient in skin lightening creams.
It works by targeting the Tyrosinase Enzyme, which is responsible for the synthesis of Melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour.
Research conducted in 1992 showed that the compound induced mononuclear cell leukaemia, renal tubular cell tumours and liver cancer in rodents.
These effects have not since been observed in humans; however the compound has been associated with many adverse health effects.
These include Dermatitis (acne) and exogenous Ochronosis, a rare disease (that affects 1 in 100,000 people) characterised by banana-shaped ochre coloured deposits in the skin.
This occurs when the compound is used in concentrations of 2% or greater according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
The use of the compound in products that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor are banned in the UK and Ghana, though citizens still sell and use skin lightening creams with the ingredient appearing in prominent amounts.
A study conducted in 2017 with 410 high school students in Ghana found that over 60% of female students were engaged in skin bleaching and between 22% and 44% of students knew female teachers who practice skin bleaching.
The researchers concluded that the practice of skin bleaching is well entrenched in Ghana as the occurrence of skin lightening in the high school was about the same as reported among adults in Ghana and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Similarly, the practice of skin bleaching has been prevalent amongst women of African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent in the UK.
Shop owners such as Banaras Hussain based in Peckham, South London and Meg Chucks based in Moston, Greater Manchester have been repeatedly fined for illegally selling skin lightening creams.
Chucks, who is of African descent herself, claimed that she regularly uses and sells creams such as ‘Funbeaut’ a Nigerian-Manufactured product, which contains over 3% Hydroquinone.
So why do these products continue to be purchased? The global market for skin lighteners is projected to be worth $31.2 billion by the year 2024.
Yaba Amgborale Blay, PHD, whose research includes transnational skin bleaching, argues that colonialism continues to impact perceptions of and attitudes about skin colour and subsequently contribute to decisions to bleach one’s skin.
As such, skin bleaching has and continues to be a global phenomenon and a growing public health concern which countries will have to take greater care of in the future.