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Skin-lighteningPhoto source: Wikiphoto

Skin-whitening beauty products contain toxic chemicals that are slowly killing us

 By Chin Cabrido - Nepal | ekantipur.com

I hope that fear will make people ponder after a recent study by India's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed the presence of heavy metals in cosmetics. Toxic chemicals like mercury, chromium and nickel were found in fairness creams and lipsticks with advertisers promoting the products with a different spin. Public relations companies which specialise in twisting a commodity make what is black white and white black. And when Bollywood stars endorse these products, convinced customers end up polluting their bodies.

The use of fairness creams to enhance features and reduce blemishes in a bid to make women more desirable and beautiful has become a long-standing issue for health and women activists. Activists describe as absurd, the notion that women cannot survive without cosmetics, and that cosmetics are what give a fairly instant beauty fix to women that need them. You do not have to look far to see the damage that a toxin load can do to your body, it is all rooted in scientific investigation.

Toxic mix

The CSE has reported that skin-lightening cosmetic products containing mercury can damage the kidneys and may cause rashes, skin discoloration and scarring instead of the intended benefits of skin lightening and removal of pigmentation. Even prior to this revelation, there were recorded cases of mercury poisoning following the use of skin-lightening products in 2011. Traces of mercury are also used in mascara to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi which can infect and damage the eye. At the molecular  level, you are likely to find carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins and hormone disruptors in cosmetic products.

The "improved" make-up products advertisers promote are are simply composed of toxic particles that are both smaller and stronger. This means that they are more easily absorbed into the skin, way past the protective layers that once served as a barrier to these toxins. So when you shave your armpits, as you are scraping off a layer of skin, you apply carcinogenic-filled cream right on the vulnerable areas near your lymph nodes.

More to it, hexavalent chromium, a chemical known to cause cancer in humans, is found in lipsticks. Nickel was also found in 13 out of the 30 lipstick products tested by the CSE. And it is not only adults who are at risk but also young girls who are dying to try on their mother's lipstick or apply make-up for a school play. No level of toxic exposure is considered safe for children. It can lead to decreased bone and muscle growth, nervous system and kidney damage, speech problems and seizures. This reveals a complete disconnect between the perception of beauty and health.

The infuriating thing about it is that we are the ones asking consumer goods companies to produce them. We watch Shah Rukh Khan throw a skin whitening cream towards us with the message: The whiter the skin, the more attractive and successful one is. And we believe it. We rush to the nearest store to buy the items, even order imported products with the same chemical content. No wonder we see all kinds of health and beauty products carrying labels about the whitening features in them.

Regulatory absence

And this not only happens in Nepal. In the Philippines, we have anti-perspirants, lotions, face creams, toothpastes, astringents — all of which guarantee a new “you” with fairer skin. They come in all persuasive terms like spot remover, nourishing cream and eliminating freckle cream which makes a person like me so confused about what product to buy. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration of the Philippines banned 16 skin-whitening products containing mercury salts. Imagine my shock when I saw these “banned” products shelved in beauty stalls in Nepal.

True as they say, what is illegal in one country can find its way into another. This shows how weak regulations and enforcements are in terms of banning cosmetic products. According to a study by the Centre for Public Health and Environment Development in Nepal, there is no monitoring of the quality, sales, import and distribution of cosmetics in the Nepali market. Since there is no proper labelling of the ingredients contained in cosmetics, people are not aware of such contamination in the products they are buying. This is a good reminder of what regulatory bodies should do. People mostly rely on laws to ensure that they are shielded from the hazards and toxins in cosmetic products place.

Natural pigments

Alongside the ardent campaigns launched by cosmetics companies to convince us that fair implies beautiful, what we fail to understand is that humans with dark skin pigmentation have skin naturally rich in melanin and have more melanosomes that provide superior protection against the effects of ultraviolet radiation. This helps the body to retain its folate reserves, a water-soluble vitamin B complex which occurs naturally  in green leafy vegetables, whole grains and citrus fruits. In fact, women need folate to maintain healthy eggs, which is essential for foetal growth and organ development. Other women take folate supplements just to become pregnant.

Because dark pigmented people are protected by the melanin, they have a lower chance of developing skin cancer and conditions related to folate deficiency. Based on a study, dark-skinned women suffer the lowest level of neural tube defects or birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord. This happens in the first month of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. In the tropics, natural selection favoured dark-skinned human populations and genetic evidence also supports this notion, demonstrating that around 1.2 million years ago, the genus Homo developed dark skin pigmentation as a means to survive.

With television, internet, cell phones, social media and other instruments of rapid and mass communication, the prospects of the public weighing in on the concept of fairness tied up with beauty multiply tenfold. In the midst of this, I pose this question: If dark-pigmented people are at an advantage due to the high amounts of melanin produced in their skin, how come we pursue fairness as beauty? Maybe the CSE's study on cosmetic toxins can rouse enough public interest and indignation to spark an upheaval against these beauty products that are slowly killing us.

Related article: Booming Exploitation of 'Fair & White' Ideology


Chin Cabrido is an international news stringer and writer.

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