Joanna Lobo and Rhythma Kaul
It’s the ultimate irony- the fairness creams and bleaches you use to lighten your skin, make it softer or keep wrinkles away could be doing you serious harm. And not just to your skin. In addition to causing discolouration, rashes and scarring, some chemicals and steroids in these products can damage the kidneys, affect the lungs, heart and lower your resistance to infections.
This week, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited two fairness creams, found to be steroid-heavy, from being sold in the state, and is now planning a crackdown that will involve tests on a similar range of products. “We are in the process of testing fairness creams from major brands for steroids, heavy metals and chemicals. If these aren’t mentioned on the label, then we will take action against the companies,” said state FDA commissioner Harshadeep Kamble.
Mumbai marketing executive Krupa Joseph*, 25, won’t be holding her breath. Two months ago, she used a fairness cream recommended by a friend. In five days, Joseph’s skin became dry and started peeling. She also developed a rash on her face. “Many fairness creams contain bleach and harmful chemicals such as hydroquinone, steroids, and heavy metals like mercury. The heavy metals are carcinogenic and cause skin discolouration. The steroids cause thinning, skin ageing and acne eruptions. The mix of chemicals can also cause allergies and dermatitis,” said dermatologist Priyam Kembre.
The treatment prescribed for Joseph was simple – sunscreen to shield her skin from UV damage until it recovered; and washing her face at least five times a day.
Not all cases are such simple fixes. Take Delhi-based chemical engineer Saurav Bisht*, 26. He began using a fairness cream after being rejected by three arranged matches because of his dark skin.
He ended up at a dermatologist’s office three months later. His face had red bumps that occasionally bled. It took a course of antibiotics to treat his outbreak of rosacea or adult acne. “People tend to develop photo-sensitivity, which means sun damage,” said consultant dermatologist at Jaypee Hospital, Noida, Sakshi Shrivastav. “The steroids can also lead to hair growth, especially on the face.”
While side effects sometimes kick in within minutes of first use, others may react following sustained use over months or even years. “I get about one patient a day suffering from an allergic reaction after having used a fairness cream,” said Shrivastav.
Bablu Gupta, 32 used fairness creams daily. Five months in, he developed pimples and oily skin. When the pimples turned raw and painful, he threw away his tubes. His skin is now clear. The problem is far more rampant among young girls, doctors say. “15 per cent of my patients are girls aged 17 to 25, who suffer due to random cosmetic use. They get carried away by marketing,” said senior dermatologist at Max Healthcare, Delhi, Nitin Walia. “The truth is, any skin product that gives you instant fairness results should make you suspicious,” added Mumbai-based dermatologist Apratim Goel, who is currently treating Joseph. “The biggest problem is many of these products don’t have proper labels; only permissible ingredients are mentioned.”
(With inputs from Abhishek Rawat) *Names changed on request