Society pushes a large part of the population into thinking that, to be good-looking you must change the fundamental components of what makes you; you. Instead of simply enhancing your natural beauty.

In a country such as India, the influence of fair skin has a caste legacy and the narrative is that those at the top of society have fair skin. With issues such as the success at your workplace and relationships often being determined by the skin tone, people tend to invest in skin-whitening products in the hope of a better outcome.

In countries such as Thailand it is difficult to find beauty products without skin lightening properties, and a celebrity backed product in Nigeria sold out within 24 hours.

In 2013 BBC reported on a study that suggested one out of three South African women bleach their skin. In SA Huffington Post notes that local vendors are still selling harmful lightening products while The Daily Mail claims that some of these creams contain hydroquinone and tretinoin. These substances are dangerous and could lead to possibly lethal health concerns.

The issue of skin colour keeps coming up and affects people on a psychological level, especially children. Their performance in school could be affected because their confidence level goes down and they feel they are not good enough. A few years back, a news article in IOL reported on a woman who was selling a skin lightening cream called Caro Light in South Africa, which, she claimed, could transform people’s skin colour in two weeks. The interesting statement was around the early age people start using these products. The vendor said that children as young as 16 were bleaching their skin by following their parents’ example. Should we let skin colour dictate our children’s identity and their confidence?

After all, skin colour, along with the colour of our hair and eyes, is genetically determined by the amount of melanin found in the top layers of skin. Its varied presence, which accounts for the diversity of skin colours, is linked to a population’s historic levels of sun exposure. The way our skin colour is determined is out of our control, but we still let it dictate our lives and this, has could have devastating effects.

Skin-whitening products promising to be anti-melanin are now available on the market and from a medical point of view, using them can result in worrying consequences. Melanin is produced by melanocytes to protect the DNA of our skin from sun damage. Excessively reducing this concentration of melanin may increase the risk of skin cancers.

Skin lightening is most common known as skin bleaching and it involves altering your normal skin tone to make it lighter. “The physical” risks of bleaching your skin are severe, yet many people still want to do it. Some creams have been found to contain dangerous chemicals, such as hydroquinone and mercury.

There may be certain skin creams that can be used safely under a doctor’s supervision for specific conditions that result in pigmentation. But, many non-prescription products on the market are not under South African regulation and are illegal.

The women using skin-whitening products are often unaware of the health hazards associated with using them, especially when even our very own celebrities are using them. These products you should be aware of include skin-lightening pills, soaps, supplements, surgeries and injections.

Some of the complications resulted from using any of these products include: thinning of the skin, severe, permanent stretch marks, rapid aging, skin infections, steroid-induced acne, permanent dark marks, osteoporosis, neurological and kidney damage due to high level of mercury used in the creams, psychiatric disorders, asthma, cataracts and skin cancer. Some of the side effects can be seen almost immediately while some are seen after prolonged use of skin whitening creams.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mercury causes rashes, discoloration and scarring of the skin. It also lowers your skin’s ability to protect against infection and could even lead to kidney and nerve damage. Mercury affects not only your physical health, but your mental state as well, as it could cause anxiety and depression.

Unlike mercury, which will always affect your skin negatively, topical steroids can be used effectively to treat skin conditions. However, when their use isn’t regulated, it can also result in permanent stretch marks, bruising, discolouration and skin thinning.

Hydroquinone is a legal active ingredient. But, its use was only regulated by the South African government in the 1970’s and is now only prescribed by medical professionals – it’s not something you should buy over-the-counter. The British Skin Foundation warns that this ingredient could cause severe irritation and uneven bleaching of the skin.

Another recent trend involves lightening the skin from the inside out with glutathione injected directly into the bloodstream via a drip route. Glutathione is an important antioxidant produced naturally by the liver, it is found in every cell in the body. Glutathione comprises of three amino acids, glutamine, glycine, and cysteine, and it contains sulfur groups that attract free radicals, heavy metals and toxins, and enhances their elimination.

Glutathione is administered intravenously as a skin-whitening agent. The synthetic glutathione inhibits your body’s protection of melanin synthesis.

No one really knows how safe it is yet and there is very little evidence that establishes the efficacy of glutathione injections for skin lightening. More research needs to be done.

A very high dose of glutathione is unsafe and may result in serious health consequences. Adverse drug reactions resulting from the use of glutathione IV for skin whitening have been reported and includes long term chances of developing skin cancer as glutathione inhibits the production of melanin that is a dark pigmentation protecting a person’s body from the harmful UV rays from the sun.  Taking glutathione long-term has been linked to lower zinc levels, skin rashes, potentially fatal Steven Johnsons Syndrome (SJS), Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN), irregularities in the thyroid function, kidney dysfunction potentially resulting in kidney failure, etc. Severe abdominal pain in a patient receiving twice-weekly glutathione administered intravenously has been reported.

Given the risks of harm, and the overall lack of medical need, you should think carefully before undertaking skin lightening with glutathione injections.

The best advice for you is to stop the practice of skin lightening, brightening or bleaching and focus your attention achieving a healthy, glowing skin, regardless of its tone and colour. In a country with so many different skin shades, let’s celebrate every single one of them!