Can creams make you fairer? The answer is a resounding yes. Creams lighten the skin to make it fairer, but in doing so, expose it a host of problems, from patchiness to skin cancer.
Melanin is the pigment that gives the skin its colour and the denser and darker it is, the darker is the skin tone. This pigment forms a shield on the skin and prevents harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from penetrating deep into the skin. UV rays can cause permanent damage by altering the DNA of cells, leading to cell death and change in cell cycle. Some visible effects of damage are premature ageing, frequent infections because of decreased immunity, and cancers.
Since most of India is exposed to slanting yet harsh UV rays, the race developed brown skin, with the melanin giving naked skin a natural sun protection factor of 5.
Tanning is a protective reflex. Fairness creams reduce the melanin the skin that causes tanning, making it more sensitive to everything, from change of weather, excess heat, humidity to cosmetics. These can make the skin react, causing burning, redness and darkening.
Apart from warping the skin’s natural protection, fairness creams contain ingredients that can have additional side effects. A commonly-used base called hydroquinone is a known cancer-inducing agent and is suspected to be one of the causes of the increase in skin cancer cases in brown-skinned people over the past two decades.
Use fairness creams as treatment creams and not cosmetics that can be used indefinitely.
Apply lightening creams at night to reduce the harmful effect of sun.
Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are most powerful.
Since fairness creams strip the skin of its protection, provide cover with a hat, scarf or umbrella.
Use a physical sunscreen —calamine lotion, talc or foundation — in addition to a sunscreen with an SPF 15 TO 20.
Avoid whitening creams with steroids and hydroquinone.
Don’t use multiple lightening products — face washes, soaps moisturising lotions — together.
If your skin becomes irritable, throw the cream away at once.
Dr Agarwal is a consultant dermatologist and the director of Mehak Skin Clinic, Sarvodaya Enclave