Skin whitening products: Are you being fair to your health?

The anatomy of a skin whitening cream advertisement: In comes the girl with low self-esteem. She wants to say hello to the boy she likes but is too shy. She sings about it to herself alone in the safety of her room. She declines an invitation to a party. A sympathetic friend offers the panacea to all her problems – A *insert brand name* skin whitening cream.

Cut to shot of her skin, now brighter by two levels. With renewed confidence, she’s belting it out on stage, commanding the attention of an ecstatic crowd. She catches the eye of the boy she likes, and they share a smile. She lives happily ever after.

The message is simple – fairer skin is better.

Skin whitening products have set off many a controversial discussion, and commercials with racist undertones are just one facet of the debate.

Whether this billion dollar industry is involved in perpetuating prejudice against those with darker skin tones or not, there is the health aspect of skin whitening products that is also a cause for concern.

Chemical catastrophe

Every so often a skin whitening product is banned because of the toxic chemicals it contains, the more common being mercury and hydroquinone.

While mercury is effective in lightening the skin, it can damage both your nerves and kidneys once it is absorbed by the body.

When applied topically, mercury can cause skin redness, peeling, discomfort and hypersensitivity to the sun.

Despite being banned in a majority of countries, many skin whitening products found legally in the market have traces of mercury.

Hydroquinone is another chemical present in skin whitening creams which reduces the production of melanin. However, the European Union banned this chemical as studies on mice showed links between hydroquinone and skin cancer.

In the US, the FDA allows hydroquinone in concentrations of up to 4% in skin products. There are no registered products in Malaysia containing hydroquinone.

Similar to mercury, when applied on the skin hydroquinone can cause severe skin redness, cracking, dryness and blisters. Some have also reported skin discolouration.

What determines skin colour?

Skin colour is a polygenic trait. Polygenic traits are characteristics determined by your genes and because of this the resulting trait is often expressed in a wide range.

For example, people come in varying heights. Contrast these with blood types – A, B, AB and O. While blood types are more complex than these general groupings, these are the most significant and are a good example to illustrate the point.

The colour of our skin is determined by a pigment called melanin. The more melanin you produce, the darker your skin.

Melanin has a protective function against ultraviolet radiation from the sun and therefore helps reduce one’s risk of skin cancer. However, many skin whitening creams aim to promote lightening of the skin by suppressing melanin pigments.

How to identify a registered product

Before a pharmaceutical product, including health supplements and so-called traditional products are marketed in Malaysia, they must first be registered with the Drug Control Authority (DCA).

The DCA conducts safety tests on these products and if safety is found to be compromised, the products cannot be marketed.

The products have a registration number and a hologram sticker. The format starts with “MAL” followed by eight digits and ends with either the letter T, A, X or N.

These products are also fitted with a Meditag hologram sticker as an additional security step to buffer against counterfeit registration numbers.

The authenticity of these hologram stickers can be checked at any pharmacy using a decoder. A full list of registered products can also be found at the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau website.

Alternatively, a smartphone application called Mediquest is available on both Android and iOS to be downloaded so you can conduct your own checks.

Are natural ingredients necessarily good?

The fear of side effects from chemicals has given birth to a whole new industry of natural skin whitening products.

When in doubt, au naturale seems the sensible way to go. But are natural ingredients necessarily good? It depends. Let’s try a little exercise.

Carry out separate Google searches of products containing natural ingredients for skin whitening, acne and wrinkles.

Go through the results of the first pages in these searches and you’ll start to see the same products offered for these different problems. Almost like magic.

In the medical world, just as in real life, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This is not to say that these natural remedies have no medicinal purposes. Many do have scientifically-proven benefits. But unlike drugs created in a lab, some of these natural products escape scrutiny and enjoy good reputations purely due to being natural.

To be fair, most of these products provide minimal benefits and cost minimal harm.

A healthy dose of skepticism is prudent when considering the pros and cons of any product, even if they do contain natural ingredients.

Just remember that nature gave us rivers to drink from but floods to drown in.

DoctorOnCall is Malaysia’s first online clinic that allows chat, phone, and video calls directly with a registered Malaysian doctor at



DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You are encouraged to confirm any information obtained here with other sources, and review all information with your physician. Please do not disregard professional medical advice or delay treatment because of something you have read here. FMT is not responsible and liable for any damage caused through information obtained here.