Women of Color Face Health Risks From Skin Lightening Product Ingredients: Study

Almost half of the study respondents could not identify the active ingredients in their skin lightening products, which often contain toxic substances like mercury.

A new study highlights the serious health risks that women of color face from ingredients in skin lightening or skin bleaching products, as well as the societal pressures that continue to drive women to lighten their skin without understanding the potential side effects from certain ingredients.

Black and Asian women are most likely to use over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching creams, possibly containing dangerous substances like mercury and steroids, researchers warn in findings published this month in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.

Prescription skin bleaching creams are sometimes used under a doctor’s supervision to treat certain skin conditions. However, a growing variety of cosmetic lightening creams are sold over-the-counter, and have become a multi-billion dollar industry in recent years.

Manufacturers frequently market those products to Black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian women who want to lighten their skin tone to reduce the effects of color bias. However, most women of color do not fully understand the toxic effects of certain skin lightening ingredients, according to the new findings.

Color Bias Linked to Dangerous Skin Lightening Cream Use

Color bias, or “colorism,” occurs when lighter skin on non-white people leads to preferential treatment, as compared to those with darker skin tones. Prior research has shown that non-white people with lighter skin are perceived as more beautiful and better educated than those with darker skin, and are likelier to hold higher income jobs.

Health experts have criticized the cosmetic skin bleaching industry in recent years, following reports that highlighted how lightening products are largely unregulated and may contain harmful ingredients.

In 2019, federal health officials warned consumers to avoid unregulated skin bleaching creams after a woman using those products developed severe nervous system damage. A 2022 CNN investigation revealed that some skin whitening creams contain elevated levels of mercury, a highly toxic naturally occurring element linked to vision loss and nerve damage. Long term mercury exposure is also associated with increased risk of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Skin Bleaching Products Pose Risks to Women of Color

For this latest study, researchers from Northwestern Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair  conducted an anonymous survey involving 455 respondents, consisting of people of color registered in an online health volunteer database. The survey collected data on gender, ethnicity, skin tone, skin tone satisfaction, colorism experiences, and skin bleaching habits. Of those who responded, 78.7% were women.

The survey results indicate 52.3% of respondents were Black, 18.2% were Asian, 18.5% were multi-racial, 6.8% were Hispanic, and 3.1% were American Indian or Alaska Native. Roughly 1% of respondents identified racially as “other.”

Nearly 22% of survey respondents reported using skin lightening creams. Of that group, 73.2% used prescription products under a doctor’s supervision to treat skin conditions. However 26.8% used OTC skin lightening products for cosmetic purposes.

Only 22.6% of those who used cosmetic skin lightening creams consulted with a doctor before using non-prescription products, according to the findings. Researchers also determined that 45.4% of respondents who bleached their skin with non-prescription creams could not identify the active ingredients in those products.

When respondents provided a full ingredient list to researchers, they found that more than  35% of those using cosmetic lightening creams used products containing hydroquinone, a steroid linked to skin rashes, facial swelling, and discoloration.

After researchers compared skin lightening habits to colorism responses, they determined that those using OTC bleaching creams were more likely to perceive lighter skin as extremely beautiful. They were also more likely to associate lighter skin with improved relationship success and marriage prospects. Those respondents also reported lower overall skin tone satisfaction compared to those who do not use bleaching products.

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Researchers concluded societal color bias drives some people of color, especially women, to use OTC skin lightening products. Some of those women are unaware of the potentially harmful ingredients in those products and could face potentially serious health risks as a result, the researchers warned.

They recommended dermatologists warn their patients, especially those of color, of the potentially harmful effects of over the counter skin bleaching creams. The researchers also urged healthcare professionals to supervise patients using prescription skin lightening products to ensure they are used safely.

“As dermatologists, we hope to understand the cultural and societal influences that impact skin health and treatment of skin disease,” lead investigator Dr. Roopal Kundu, founder and director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair, said in a July 18 press release. “Cultural mindfulness for clinicians as they get to know their patients battling pigmentary issues allows for the safe, effective, comprehensive and compassionate treatment of dermatological disease across all communities.”


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