Muslims Trying to Become Whiter?
By Saffia Meek
Freelance Writer - United States
Shades of Brown
Across the Muslim world, a hot trend seems to be skin bleaching.
Across the Muslim world, from Asia to Africa to the Middle East and minority communities throughout the U.K. and America, a hot trend seems to be skin bleaching. This is the prolific use of bleaching creams to lighten the color of one's skin in the pretense of looking 'whiter'.
Aside from the social issues involved with this mentality, there is a serious question of the health risks involved in the use of these creams. Are they dangerous or are they simply an easy way to change your appearance?
Mother Knows Best?
While the practice of lightening the skin tone appears to have begun within the African peoples, it is now spread throughout the Muslim countries. (Youthxchange.net.) Why is this practice so prevalent and who is doing it?
Most information about this product use focuses on women. The prevailing reasons being that it is difficult to get a job or find a suitable spouse when you have darker skin - that people will like you better if you have lighter skin color. The hope of these women is to lighten their skin color to enhance their beauty thus improving their chance to be chosen for the job or by the man they seek. (Integrated Regional Information Networks; Van Marsh, Alphonso; AlArabiya.net)
One can only imagine the psychological impact of being told that your God-given skin color isn't good enough. That it would be preferred for you to pretend you are something other than what you are.
Asma Dadabhoy-Khan, a social worker working with battered women and volunteer counselor at the Islamic Association of North Texas health clinic, told IslamOnline.net that our opinions regarding the value of skin color goes back to early childhood experiences.
She describes how early childhood studies show that babies learned how to react to pictures of people with different skin colors based on how their mom reacted to those same pictures.
"If mom used pleasant and smiling facial expressions and emotional reactions, the baby reacted in the same manner. Likewise, if mom used unpleasant, non-smiling facial expressions and emotional reactions, the baby imitated how mom reacted," Khan explained.
She went on to say that "if these views are reinforced over and over again one will start believing them without giving it much thought."
This negative attitude and reinforcement is such a problem around the world that these creams are being called 'racism in a bottle' according to an article in AlArabiya.net, the online presence of Al Arabiya News Channel. Needless to say, the trend is neither restricted to Muslims nor to people in the Muslim world.
A Risky Cocktail of Chemicals
Complaints made to the U.S. FDA include burning, redness, swelling, itching, blistering and skin discoloration.
The most commonly used chemicals in bleaching creams are hydroquinone, ammonia and hydrogen peroxide. When advertising their content, however, skin lightening products emphasise natural ingredients typically include vitamins A, B3 and C, or plant extracts.(Integrated Regional Information Networks; Parul, Kolhe; Newsinferno.com)
Users of these creams need to know what their product contains, the amount of each component and what potential dangers there are to prolonged exposure.Many skin bleaching creams contain:
Hydroquinone - Studies on hydroquinone are not absolutely conclusive as to the dangers of its use. Small amounts of Hydroquinone for limited amounts of time are generally considered safe for the treatment of skin discolorations. But, in higher amounts or over extended use dermatologists say that it stops the production of melanin in the skin, which is the body's natural protection from sun damage. With the loss of this protection, the skin is more vulnerable to cancer.
Hydroquinone is believed to be so harmful when used in this manner that Jamaica’s Ministry of Health started a campaign to end the use of skin bleaching creams in their country. The campaign, titled "Don't Kill Your Skin," is aimed at educating Jamaicans on the dangers of using these products.
The European Union, Japan, Australia, and South Africa have taken such a strong stand on the use of hydroquinone that they have banned its use in over the counter products. It is still legal to use hydroquinone in the U.S. though the Federal Drug Administration is considering banning it as well. (Newsinferno.com; The Jamaica-Star.com.; Associatedcontent.com)
Ammonia - Ammonia can cause skin irritation and redness which can blister and burn if left on the skin too long. (Integrated Regional Information Networks)
Retinolic Acid (Vitamin A) - Vitamin A works to shed the top layers of skin, leaving behind skin with less pigmentation. Dermatologists have successfully used Vitamin A mixed with other compounds for treating small areas of skin discoloration. Used alone, Vitamin A can burn the skin leaving behind reddened, raw looking patches.
Since Vitamin A is fat-soluble, toxicity can occur if too much is taken in by the body. Without knowing the amounts of Vitamin A in the bleaching products, you need to be careful with the use of products containing Vitamin A. (Healthline.com)
Niacin (Vitamin B3) - In the form of niacinamide, Vitamin B3 can improve the skin's appearance and elasticity and helps with Rosacea. (Healthlibrary.epnet.com)
Kojic Acid or Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) - Vitamin C, when used in amounts of 1- 4%, is useful in decreasing the production of melanin. However, this compound is vulnerable to instability and causing sensitivities and sores on the skin. (Begoun, Paula; Hyperpigmentation-solutions.com)
Arbutin - A byproduct of hydroquinone. Used for skin whitening, it is less irritating to the skin but is also less effective than hydroquinone. (WIPO.int)
Alpha Hydroxy Acids - Compounds from fruit and milk sugars used in cosmetics to reduce the signs of aging and sun damage to the skin. They are known to cause sensitivity to sun exposure. Complaints made to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration include burning, redness, swelling, itching, blistering and skin discoloration. (Kurtzweil, Paula)
The Truth Behind Ayurvedic Products
The main skin lightening ingredients in Ayurvedic Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream have no actual effect on skin lightening.
The latest on the market are a line of ayurvedic skin lightening products. Ayurveda is considered the oldest system of medicine in India. Ayurvedic products claim to be made of only natural or herbal ingredients. (National Institutes of Health)
A look into the typical ayurvedic fairness cream shows that none of the listed ingredients have any of the claimed skin lightening effects. According to Himalaya Herbal Healthcare, the main skin lightening ingredients in Ayurvedic Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream - Lodhra, Manjistha, and Kumkuma - have no actual effect on skin lightening. (Naturetherapy.com, Himalayahealthcare.com)
Though the ayurvedic products may be made of herbs and natural ingredients, one concern is that of toxicity. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 found that 20% of ayurvedic products contained toxic levels of the heavy metals lead, mercury and arsenic. Other research has also found high levels of heavy metals in ayurvedic products. (Saper R.B et al.)
Each option for skin lightening has its risks for potential harm. Suiata Jolly, a research scientist, told CNN last November, "Initially, [the bleaching cream] will appear to lighten the skin. The reaction between the sun and chemicals triggers an oxidation reaction, which then starts turning the skin darker."
She goes on to describe that continued use of the bleaching cream will break down the skin allowing the chemicals to enter the bloodstream and damage the liver and kidneys. (Van Marsh, Alphonso)
But the demand for these products doesn't seem to stop. Is it so important to risk the health of your skin and lose your belief in who you are, for the chance to appear more 'Western', more 'White'?
"A Closer Look at Ayurvedic Medicine. NIH: Focus on Complementary and Alternative Medicine." Volume XII, Number 4: Fall 2005/Winter 2006. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
"Arab Women Use 'Bottled Racism' for Whiter Skin." AlArabiya.net. 2008. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Ayurvedic Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream." Naturetherapy.com. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Begoun, Paula. "Skin Lightening." Cosmeticscop.com. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Johnson, Mari. "Hydroquinone Ban on the Horizon - Skin Care Companies Scramble for Alternatives." Associatedcontent.com. November 23, 2006. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Kojic Acid - Hyperpigmentation Solutions." Hyperpigmentation-solutions.com. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Kolhe, Parul. "Fairness in a Bottle: The Truth Behind Whitening Lotions and Creams." Rediff.com. 2007. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Kurtzweil, Paula. "Alpha Hydroxy Acids for Skin Care." Food & Drug Administration. 1999. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Lodhra." Himalayahealthcare.com. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Nigeria: Bleaching Body Practices." Youthxchange.net. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Pakistan: Focus on Skin Bleaching." Integrated Regional Information Networks. 2002. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Skin Bleach Ban Fails - Vendors Still Making Big Bucks Despite Ministry Clampdown." The Jamaica-Star.com. 2007. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Saper R.B., Kales S.N., Paquin J., et al. "Heavy Metal Content of Ayurveda Herbal Medicine Products." JAMA 292 (23): 2868–73. 2004.
"Skin Bleaching Chemical Hydroquinone Legal In US, Despite Cancer Potential." Newsinferno.com. 2007. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Skin Whitening Composition Containing Arbutin and Glucosidase as Active Ingredients." World Intellectual Property Organization. WIPO.int. 2002. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Van Marsh, Alphonso. "UK's Skin Bleaching Trade Exposed." CNN.com. 2007. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
"Vitamin A." Healthline.com.
"Vitamin B3." Healthlibrary.epnet.com. April 2008. Accessed 28 Sept. 2008.
Saffia Meek is a passionate volunteer, working with a variety of organizations including the Lewisville Public Library in Lewisville, TX, the Flower Mound Humane Society and the Council on American-Islamic Relations Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, the Unites States. She has been published in the Dallas Morning News, United Press International, Myrtle Beach Sun and several Islamic publications. She holds a Bachelor of Science. She can be reached by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org