The number of destructive and potentially deadly ingredients supposedly for skin ‘toning’ and ‘lightening’ or bleaching found in some creams and lotions widely sold in Barbados and across the Caribbean, should be regulated or banned with serious fines for violators.
That is the sentiment coming from dermatologist Dr Andrew Forde who has been speaking about the massive disfigurement, and even cancer, caused by the drugs that are sometimes hidden in a cream or lotion, and enticingly packaged and advertised as beautification products.
“We need to be aware of the fact that these things are dangerous,” he said. “We may have to consider policing it and making sure that in places where they are too widespread you can be fined, or somehow censured or some legal thing can happen to you because you’re exposing people.”
“We have to make sure that people who… put the public at risk like that can be held responsible,” he added.
The practitioner of over 21 years with an interest in Aesthetic Dermatology made the call for policing of these popular skin altering applications while delivering a Barbados Drug Service-sponsored lecture titled, ‘Love Your Skin: the Dangers of Bleaching’, at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, Tuesday.
Dr Forde spoke of a number of so-called skin toning compounds in the applications including corticosteroid creams, which “are very widespread and available all over the country and indeed the world and retinoid acid, “which came into vogue as something that helps you to look younger, is good for fine lines and wrinkles”.
Then there is hdroquinone. “That’s maybe the biggest of the things that people use for bleaching,” he said explaining that it “can decrease the production and increase the destruction of… [the melanin producer], the cell at the bottom of the skin that sends melanin to the cell at the top”.
The melanin protects persons in this part of the world from the sun’s ultraviolet light that “causes damage to the cells, and that damage to the cells can cause skin cancers”.
He explained that the enzyme involved in the process of making melanin is tyrosinase. “The reason why hydroquinone works so well is that it inhibits that [tyrosinase].”
In some people hydroquinone use causes irritation, redness [of the skin], peeling, blisters and discolouration – “things that are difficult to fix”. These conditions along with thinning of the skin exposing blood vessels and an unprotected layer are the common result of indiscriminate usage of the bleaching creams and lotions.
“This would happen from the products being bought from various beauty stores. Some stores have products [and] they don’t advise customers. The customer is left to make the decision. The product just says it would help to tone, or take away marks,” he said.
“You’re not a chemist, or someone in the health industry and you see this product there, you say I want to tone. But you don’t know it has in mercury, a steroid, hydrocodone. Sometimes on the package it’s not written what’s in the product.”
Dr Forde’s concern is that these products are being brought into the island without scrutiny – “a lot of things that are imported or that are sold are contaminated, or deliberately contain very harmful chemicals like mercury and gluthotion,” both extremely harmful to the human body.
He said that the Caribbean, along with the African and Asian continents that have large populations of dark skin people provide a ready market for the drugs.
“It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. People can make these chemicals easily and cheaply and can mass produce them and send them all over the world, and people who want to bleach… will buy them.”
Outside of the wanton over-the-counter sale of these bleachers, there are specific skin conditions for which a doctor will prescribe use of a cream or lotion containing limited amounts of these compounds but on many occasions the patient misuses the product.
He spoke of Barbadians, without consulting the doctor, using a friend at a pharmacy to get repeats of the prescribed medicine, “and no one is keeping track. But it’s a matter of sales [for pharmacy]. Next thing you know… you end up with all sorts of problems”.
“This non-compliance or not following instructions with the prescription has to do with a failure of communication between a doctor and the patient.”
Responding to a question from stage performer ‘Ife’ Harris on the possible effects of so-called skin toning soaps on the entire body, Dr Forde said, “these soaps have in some of the same things that are bad for you. Any soap that claims to be toning usually has some element in it that may not be that safe”.
Recommending research on the brand and stated ingredients, he said, “you may use it and nothing may happen, but there are some people will use it and have difficulties”.