Skin whitening grows in popularity despite health risks involved

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In today's society, images of beauty that society is bombarded with are thin models and picture-perfect celebrities.

Last month, we showed you the extremes some people are going to in order to achieve what they think is the perfect look.

Now, we are taking a closer look at the phenomenon of skin whitening and the latest trends and risks.

Skin whitening or bleaching has been around for years. It is advertised as a way to get rid of dark spots and blemishes.

Its popularity seems to be skyrocketing more recently thanks in part to celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Lil' Kim, who appear to have gotten lighter over the course of their careers.

African pop star, Dencia, has admitted to using skin lightening creams. In recent interviews, Dencia defended whitening her skin and her skin lightening products that she sells online.

She said, "Do I use what I sell? Yes, I do. Am I selling a skin bleaching cream? No, I'm not. Am I selling a dark spot remover? Yes, I am."

Dark spot remover, skin whitening, lightening cream or whatever it is labeled could have the opposite effect on consumers searching for the perfect look if not used properly with the help of a medical professional. That is according to dermatologist Sharleen St. Surin-Lord.

She says many skin lightening products sold over the counter, online or even in your local beauty supply store contain more potent doses of chemicals like hydroquinone.

There is also an injectable lightener called glutathione.

They are only supposed to be prescribed by a medical professional.

We wanted to see for ourselves so we took our cameras inside several stores in Maryland and D.C. We found shelves and shelves of skin lighteners, fade creams, bleaching bath milks and whitening soaps.

"When you look at over-the-counter products, we think they are safe because they are over the counter," said Dr. St. Surin-Lord.

Hydroquinone is the active ingredient in most skin lighteners. It slows the production of melanin in the skin.

Dr. St. Surin-Lord said products with 2 percent or less are relatively safe.

But we found boxes and boxes of skin lighteners with doses the doctor says should be prescription only. Some manufacturers even add mercury and steroids, which speeds up the lightening process, but comes with even greater risks.

"Exogenous ochronosis is a modeled, splotchy pigmentation, that blue-grey slate pigmentation that some people may have," said Dr. St. Surin-Lord. "You get steroid acne and then you get stretch marks all over your body."

More recently, people are skipping the over-the-counter products altogether and requesting an injectable lightener called glutathione.

"Glutathione is a very potent antioxidant that's in our body naturally," Dr. St. Surin-Lord said.

Glutathione was originally used to treat some cancers and Parkinson's disease. Doctors noticed when they treated patients intravenously, their patients started glowing or getting lighter.

"It was never meant to be used for skin lightening, but it is now and it happens faster, and one can choose which shade they want to go to," said Dr. St. Surin-Lord.

Just like topical creams, using glutathione the wrong way could at the very least increase sun sensitivity, and more seriously, cause your heart to race.

The bottom line, whether your quest for the perfect skin color leads you to cream or injectable, Dr. St. Surin-Lord said, "We have certain FDA regulations that stipulate what requires a prescription and what can be sold over the counter, and if something is able to be sold over the counter in another country where they have their own regulations, that is fine and dandy, but that is not our regulation. It should never have made it in. It should never have made it into the store."

Dr. St. Surin-Lord said whether you opt for glutathione or a topical cream to lighten your skin, it can be done safely nder the supervision of a licensed, certified medical professional.

She also said you need to wear sunscreen. Lightening products decrease the melanin in your skin leaving you more susceptible to skin damage from the sun.