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Do skin fairness products actually work?

Written by Dr Kiran Lohia |Updated : March 12, 2014 12:05 PM IST

India is a country obsessed with fairness. The desire for white skin is embedded in its very culture, and presents itself in Bollywood, advertisements, family advice, the Internet, and every other form of expression available. Women in villages drink lots of dairy and stay away from eating dark foods during pregnancy so they can have 'white' children. Matrimonial ads show a bevy of postings with both brides and grooms looking for fair and beautiful or handsome partners. In fact, in the Indian culture, fairness seems to be a necessary requirement in order to be considered beautiful and worthy of notice. If fairness product ads are to be believed, most people don't get a job (notwithstanding the fact that the world's most important job is held by a 'black' man) or find a suitable spouse without becoming fairer. This has resulted in a loss of self-esteem and self-value for those with darker skin colour which in turn has led to fairness product industry which conservative estimates value at Rs 2000 crore!

Dr Kiran Lohia, dermatologist and founder of Cosmedic Skin Solutions, has studied Indian skin in detail writes more about the 'fairness epidemic' that's plaguing the nation and whether these fairness products even work.

How do fairness creams work?

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Fairness creams are supposed to change the natural colour of your skin to a lighter version of it. In fact, one's skin colour is genetically determined, and is decided through the number, size and distribution of melanosomes, or sacs containing melanin or pigment, that is scattered in the top layer of the skin.

In the image above, darker skin types have more black granules in it, representing melanin, while lighter skin types have less.

In order for a fairness cream to work, it has to either affect melanin synthesis, or it has to decrease the distribution of melanosomes throughout the skin. Furthermore, agents that block UV rays or sunlight may also help in preventing darkening of the skin.

Are store bought fairness creams effective?

Do typical store bought fairness creams work? Not really. An analysis of the three most popular fairness creams in India revealed that only around 5-10% of the ingredients actually help in promoting fairness. Furthermore, although these ingredients, such as niacinamide and ascorbyl glucosidase, have some purported clinical efficacy at reducing melanin synthesis, there have been no studies to clinically prove their effect. The remaining ingredients actually act by moisturizing and softening the skin, or by protecting against UV exposure. This makes the skin look a bit fresher, giving the appearance of a slight brightening.

What to use for dull, dark or hyper-pigmented skin?

In reality, more than fairness products it's those that treat excess pigmentation or dull skin that are more effective. They do so by counter the over-synthesis of melanin which is mostly due to sun exposure. Due to India's proximity to the equator, its inhabitants are more exposed to the sun's UV rays which makes us a little more darker than we really are.

Furthermore, due to this fierce sunlight, Indian people also suffer from more pigmentation disorders, resulting in more dark patches or dark marks on the sun-exposed areas. Some ingredients that do work quite well for these issues include Hydroquinone, Alpha-Arbutin, Vitamin A derivatives and Alpha-Hydroxy Acids.

Hydroquinone is a potent melanin synthesis inhibitor, and is used in concentrations of 2% over the counter, and 4% by prescription in combination with other ingredients. Unfortunately, it has many side effects, including redness, irritation and the risk of ochronosis, or paradoxical darkening of the area where it is being used. Furthermore, it has recently been shown to cause leukemia or blood cancer in animals, leading to it being banned in the European Union. Alpha-Arbutin is a gentler and safer version of hydroquinone, and in higher percentages, has been shown to be nearly or as effective as hydroquinone without the side effects.

Vitamin A derivatives such as Retinyl Palmitate, Retinol or Tretinoin act by increasing the shedding of old skin cells. By aiding in this exfoliation process, it allows other actives to penetrate to help reduce the melanin synthesis. Furthermore, it also gets rid of those skin cells that have the excess melanin in it, making the skin look brighter.

Finally, Alpha-Hydroxy Acids are newer agents that are being used throughout the world. Derived from natural ingredients such as sugarcane and buttermilk, they act by both exfoliating duller and darker skin away, and by directly reducing melanin synthesis. Hence, these actives are increasingly being used in skin creams, and are also highly effective when used as chemical peels for the treatment of pigmentation problems. Remember; always look for either glycolic or lactic acid as they have the highest efficacy amongst the Alpha-Hydroxy Acids.

For further questions you can contact Dr Lohia here.

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