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Rows of Fair & Lovely face whitening cream for sale in a Dubai hypermarket.
Rows of Fair & Lovely face whitening cream for sale in a Dubai hypermarket.

Dark side of search for beauty

The number of women using skin whitening products is becoming a growing concern for public health officials.

DUBAI // A worrying number of women are ignoring health risks as they clamour for glamour, according to Dubai Municipality officials.

A Public Health and Safety Department campaign is putting the spotlight on potential hazards and misuse of cosmetics, specifically skin-whitening creams.

"Women should be more aware of the potential dangers and exact product ingredients," said Redha Hassan Salman, director of the Public Health and Safety Department at Dubai Municipality.

The department's consumer products safety section is responsible for personal care and cosmetic products entering the city, from testing to issuing regulations.

Tests by the section found indications of hazardous substances in some skin whitening creams such as hydroquinone (a banned substance), cortisone (prescription only, and can cause side effects including excessive hair growth) and mercury (poisonous). Frequent use might also result in loss of original skin colour.

The department recommends against using skin-whitening creams without consultation from a specialist. Each area of the body requires a specific concentration of active ingredients, so improper use could cause harmful long-term effects on the face, for example.

Despite the health risks, many women use the products.

Fatima J, a 24-year-old marketing executive in Dubai, used a skin whitening cream during her high school years. "It was when I was in sports and I stayed back after school every day," she said. "I looked really dark because of my burnt skin. So my mum bought me the cream. I used it on my legs too."

In hindsight, Fatima said, it was not a wise choice.

Devika Singh, a psychologist at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, has seen many teenagers with their skin damaged by cream ingredients.

"Most consumers don't know the true side effects, and if they do, the drive to alter their appearance is so strong that it overrides the need to preserve their health," Ms Singh said.

Skin-whitening advertisements on TV can feed the idea that one must fit a certain model to be successful or happy, she said.

"Promoting skin-bleaching creams perpetuates the idea of materialism. It sends out the message that your merit and achievements are not enough," Ms Singh said.

The most popular fairness product in the country is Fair & Lovely, with a market share of 42 per cent. Kenneth Lingan, home and personal care marketing director with Unilever Gulf, the company behind the brand, said it did not contain any harmful ingredients.

"Fair & Lovely works naturally with the skin to lighten it," he said. "It contains vitamin B3, which has been found by Unilever research to naturally control the dispersion of pigments making the skin look fairer. The effect is evident as long as the product is used."

The product is also made under stringent guidelines by dermatologists and other experts, he said.

"The only precaution we would advise consumers to take is to test the product prior to using it, as with any other cosmetic product, on a small portion of their skin if they believe they have sensitive skin," he said. "Also, as with any cream, contact with eyes and abraded skin should be avoided."

However, dermatologists advise against using pigment-changing agents.

Ashraf Reda, a specialist dermatologist with Welcare Hospital in Dubai, said whitening skin is not "medically sound".

"All these are chemicals working on some functions of the skin," he said. "They can damage the cells and prohibit cell re-growth, causing permanent pigmentation."

Such creams can cause irritation, and even eventual darkening of the skin, Dr Reda said.

"We encourage everyone to accept their own skin colour," he said. "Even if someone succeeds in changing their colour, it's only temporary because their body will take the upper hand and it will change back."

Dr Marian Coutinho, a dermatologist at Kaya Skin Clinic, said safe alternatives were available, provided that consumers kept their eyes open for dangerous ingredients.

"Look for the active ingredients in the product," she said. "There are some safe products that only use plant extracts, such as arbutin and kotic acid, and vitamin C."

Meanwhile, Fatima said there is a new trend in skin colour: getting darker for the summer.

"Tan is the new fair skin," she said.



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