Beauty is skin deep, or maybe not

It's the attractive outer appearance of a person that draws us towards them, to converse with them, get to know them better and hang out with them. And in Asian culture, fair skin alone gives you an above-average-rating on your looks. It's no wonder Asian women from all socio-economic backgrounds go to unbelievable lengths to become just a little whiter.

In many Asian countries, 4 out of 10 women use whitening creams daily and some of us are willing to go a step further and indulge in any technique to lighten the skin, be it skin bleaching, soaps, pills, laser treatments or even surgery. The key question that arises is whether creams, soaps and pills really lighten our skin tone or are they just marketing schemes that target emotions.

IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO BECOME FAIRER THROUGH CREAMS, PILLS AND SOAPS?

To begin with, you need to understand that the shade of your skin colour depends on a natural dark pigment called melanin, carotene and blood vessels. Melanin darkens the skin, carotene gives it a yellow touch and blood vessels contribute the pink glow. To whiten the skin, we normally deal with the dark patches caused by melanin. Skin whitening procedures work to depigment specific zones of abnormally high pigmentation to get an even skin tone. This process can be achieved by bleaching the discolourations on the skin such as moles, birthmarks, freckles, age spots and scars. But if you're expecting these spot treatment creams to lighten the entire complexion, you are likely to be disappointed. In fact, all of the currently available methods will then be ineffective because complete skin depigmentation is simply a futile process.

HOW DO CREAMS LIGHTEN THE SKIN?

There are a few types of whitening creams. The skin bleaching creams work by inhibiting and reducing the production of melanin. If you combine it with vitamin C or gluconic acid, they can work as catalysts to speed the process up and offer faster, visible results. Some skin bleaching products also contain antioxidant properties that prevent premature aging of the skin, while others have the property of retaining the moisture inside the layers of skin preventing skin dryness. This will help the skin recover faster after the bleaching treatment, and will minimise any unwanted side effects. Other creams use peeling to whiten the skin. Ingredients like AHAs and BHAs are the most widely used substances that loosen and peel off dead skin allowing for new healthy skin to be revealed. Some skin whitening lotions also contain vitamin A and/or retinol. It works by removing the top layer of skin to reveal a brighter, more even complexion. However, keep in mind that the best plan of action when using skin lightening cream is to change it after a while in order to achieve better results. Also be sure to use a sunscreen high in SPF before considering using any skin bleaching creams and have realistic expectations.

WHAT ABOUT THE EDIBLE MEDICATIONS?

Skin whitening pills do their job by slowing the production of melanin which controls pigmentation. Most of these pills use a combination of glutathione which blocks the production of melanin in your body resulting in less pigmentation and a lighter skin tone. However, glutathione oxides very quickly so products with this is usually accompanied by vitamin C to prevent glutathione from oxidizing. Because these pills control melanin production, they lighten your entire skin tone, so it isn't the best choice for a spot whitening experience. There are other creams available that cater specifically to spot whitening. Take pills only after consulting your physician regarding what suits you and how much is sufficient and safe. Also these take a long time to show results, in some cases even over a year, so you have to be patient.

WHAT IF I HAVE A FUNCTION, LIKE AN UPCOMING WEDDING OR VACATION, ARE THERE ANY INSTANT WHITENING PROCEDURES?

I would not call them whitening procedures; but there are treatments that can give an instant glow to your face. You could opt for really simple ways like getting a scrub or bleach, or for more obvious results, you can even get a chemical peel. During a chemical peel, we will apply an acid to the skin that burns away the top layer. As the top layer of skin heals, new skin gets to the surface; you will see a noticeable improvement. Another procedure that does a good job is laser resurfacing which uses a beam of infrared light to repair the skin. Laser goes deeper into the skin layers to accelerate new skin growth without causing damage to the surface of the skin. Once the skin heals, new skin will be noticeably lighter in tone. Depending on factors such as depth of discolouration and individual healing time, more than one treatment is usually needed.

WHAT ARE THE SIDE EFFECTS THAT COME ALONG WITH THESE?

Just don't overdo it. Personally, I think there's no ideal skin colour. If we look at the Western world, there are successful models and actresses of every skin tone, you just need to know how to enhance it. It's best to use these products only to add the glow and even out your skin tone by getting rid of spots. If you do intend to lighten your entire skin colour, always do it under a doctor's supervision as whitening products do contain some hazardous chemicals that, if over used, may harm you in the long run. For instance, a common ingredient Hydroguinone can possibly lead to cancer, too much mercury causes neurological and kidney damage, and may also lead to psychiatric disorders. Alpha hydroxy acids, commonly found in facial chemical peels, are well, acids, so should only be used under professional guidance.


Dr Nantapat Supannachart is an American Board-certified dermatologist and laser surgeon. Call 080-500-0123 or visit www.apexprofoundbeauty.com.

About the author

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Writer: Dr Nantapat Supapannachart
Position: Writer