Pakistan’s obsession with white complexion

Wardha Hussain Rizvi Oct 13 2015

While Pakistan was still not over the ‘whitening beauty soap’ advertisement that made a very well known and respectable Pakistani cook say something like ‘ab gora hoga Pakistan,’ the media threw at us a song called ‘takk fair and lovely ka jalwa’ featuring a tremendously talented Pakistani actress. While the western world glorifies the golden complexion, Pakistanis can’t help but keep looking for a ‘gori bahu.’

This leads to young females opting for beauty products which claim to make them whiter within a few weeks. From topical creams, soaps and bleach, we are now witnessing an ever-growing rage of glutathione whitening injections and tablets. While there’s nothing wrong in trying to gain back the baby complexion that you see in your childhood photos, trying to go six shades away from your actual skin tone is not really recommended.

Whitened skin from these products comes with a cost. The cost I am talking about is not just in terms of money but skin health as well. Most of these products contain mercury as an active agent which works by reducing melanin in your skin. Mercury is a toxic element that, if ingested by pregnant females, can harm the unborn baby. When these beauty creams are washed off, the mercury is drained into the sea where it is ingested by the fish and makes its way into the food web. Mercury poisoning can lead to several diseases including cancer, brain, kidney and heart toxicity.

Mercury-containing products have been long banned by FDA, USA and UK. However, we still find many beauty creams being sold in Pakistan which do not even have the list of ingredients. It is no surprise that these creams contain huge amounts of mercury for quicker results.

The companies that are not using mercury have substituted it with hydroquinone and steroids. Both these compounds are also harmful for your skin in long term usage. Night creams containing steroids are absorbed into the skin and can cause acne, hair growth and skin thinning. Hydroquinone causes allergies and ochronosis (skin discoloration) with long term use. This increases the risk of skin cancer and produces premature aging effects (dryness, wrinkles, age spots). Even though the allowed amount of hydroquinone in whitening products is not more than two percent, the companies still breach the law for selling their product and marketing purposes.

Skin lightening products do not only have side effects on long term use, but also cause skin damage on withdrawal. Sudden acne breakout, rashes, hair growth and skin discoloration upon withdrawing these products is common. This then leads females to use more chemicals on their face to treat acne, marks and scars.

A lot of times these products do not give the desired result and people turn to other products. The continuous experimenting makes skin more susceptible to damage. When the products show results, they are always temporary, keeping consumers hooked to the products as they do not want to lose their newly found whiter complexion.

The most effective and quickest whitening agent of modern times is glutathione. Also called the mother of antioxidants, glutathione is produced naturally in the body to absorb mercury, heavy metals and free radicals. Various vegetables and fruits also contain glutathione. It is known to cleanse liver and free the body from harmful waste products that overwhelm the metabolic system. Today, uncontrollably used by Asians including the rich and celebrities, glutathione was once used solely as medication for various fatal illnesses.

Like numerous other products, it interferes with melanin (pigment present in skin whose amount and type confirms the complexion of an individual) production converting eumelanin (dark pigment) to pheomelanin (red pigment). Several studies have been conducted on the use of glutathione and have shown effective results. However, it is still not approved by FDA as a safe whitening agent and no study has been yet conducted on its long term use. Therefore, right now we do not know what affect its lifelong use (as recommended for permanent white complexion) or withdrawal may bring.

The bottom line is that if you really have to use whitening products (though they should be left for people with skin disorders like vitiligo) do not rely on advertisements. Consult a dermatologist and do your research before you start using any whitening product. The best advice for our white skin obsessed awam is to use natural remedies and aim for healthy, even toned, radiant and acne free skin rather than unnaturally white, thinning and damage prone skin.

Wardha Hussain Rizvi

Wardha Hussain Rizvi:

Wardha is currently a student of M.B.B.S second year in Ziauddin University and aspires to be the best dermatologist in Pakistan. Due to her dissatisfaction with the current health industry she is doing her bit in creating health awareness by freelance writing for HTV, Pakistan's most effective health platform.