There are as many reasons for skin bleaching as there are types of treatments. Society places great emphasis on superficial looks. In an effort to combat the perceived social, romantic and economic advantages of fairer-skinned people, some darker-skinned people try to lighten their complexions by applying active bleaching agents that destroy the dark pigment under the top layer of skin. Skin bleaching also is used to treat discolorations such as freckles, age spots and uneven pigmentation. Kojic acid and hydroquinone often are mixed with glycolic acid to lighten skin, and although dermatologists prescribe low doses to treat small areas, some people overdo it in an effort to achieve an overall lighter complexion.
The pursuit of a fairer complexion is not a recent phenomenon. As far back as the 16th century, Elizabeth I of England used a white lead-based pigment called Venetian ceruse to lighten her skin. Geisha women have always painted their skin white as a representation of the epitome of beauty, grace and high social status. The white-skinned geisha still is prevalent in Japanese cultural ceremonies.
Significant health problems can occur with the overuse of some potent skin bleaching treatments that contain large amounts of hydroquinone. Many of these creams and lotions act by destroying natural melanin, leaving the skin unprotected from potentially cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun. Some skin-whitening creams are formulated with ultraviolet (UV) protection. Adverse reactions from overmedication of skin bleaching preparations might include damage to the skin such as excessive wrinkling or acne. Some skin-lightening products have a high mercury content as their base, with the potential of chronic mercury poisoning if they are used incorrectly or for long periods of time.
The more potentially harmful use of household bleach can result in permanent facial disfigurement. The demand for effective and safer skin bleaching treatments has led to the development of new methodologies. Topical lotions and gels containing UV protection and retinoid are used in conjunction with lasers and new innovations in treatment.
Homemade, do-it-yourself skin beaching options also have their devotees. Toothpaste, which often is used to self treat acne, also is popular as a cheap option for skin bleaching. Curry and milk powders and cornmeal are among a host of inexpensive and relatively harmless skin lightening substances that have been used with anecdotal success.