The dark side of white
() - January 29, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - When it comes to skin color desirability, there are two main schools of thought — there are the Sun Worshippers and there are the Snow Whites. In the spectrum of things, there are clans that consider the beach their pied-à-terre, while the others emulate the vampiric lifestyle and quiver at the thought of sun exposure. Many of us know the dangers of basking under the sun one too many times, like your face looking more wrinkled than a Shar-Pei, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the potential risk of skin cancer.

But what about those in the quest to become the fairest of them all? It is not a particularly uncommon aspiration for those who were born with darker skin to want to lighten up. In fact a survey found that over 50 percent of women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines currently use a skin-whitening product. This number is joined by the four out of 10 women in South Korea and Taiwan who also use a whitening product regularly. 

The desire for a creamy complexion is a potentially dangerous one. The whitening lotions and potions widely available on the market today claiming results in just days seem too good to be true for the naturally-born tanned Filipina… and they probably are.  

Hydroquinone is the most commonly-used skin-whitening ingredient in the world, and has been widely used to treat hyper-pigmentation, age spots, melasma, and the like — with proven effectiveness because of its potency. Sound good? Not really. Studies have shown that frequent use of products containing this have been linked to a medical condition known as ochronosis that causes the skin to become dark, thick and develop dome-shaped yellowish or grayish spots that are difficult to remove. Some studies also report abnormal functions of the adrenal glands and high levels of mercury in people who have used hydroquinone-containing cosmetics. 

If that hasn’t scared you enough, other side effects include loss of skin elasticity, poor wound healing, appearance of skin nodules, and fish odor syndrome. (Yes, you read that right.) Did I mention that hydroquinone is also a potential carcinogen?         

For these reasons, hydroquinone use in cosmetic products has already been banned in Japan, the European Union, Australia and Canada. In the US, only products that contain two percent or less hydroquinone are available over-the-counter, while anything up to four percent require a prescription and supervision of a physician. The scary truth in the Philippines is that, because of the consumer demand for these, there are currently no guidelines here in the Philippines as some products contain up to 8.5 percent concentration.

So unless you want to be a pizza-faced, skin-sagging, fish-smelling wench, my advice is to avoid products containing hydroquinone at all costs. Read the labels, or better yet contact the Philippine Dermatological Society ( to ask for a list of products that contain it. 

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