Throughout history fair, white skin has been a desirable physical attribute for a variety of societal and cultural reasons. In many Asian cultures, the look of porcelain white skin was considered a sign of good breeding or association with royalty or other elite cultural sects, particularly in women. Those members of the working classes often bore the look of laborers with skin tone that were darkened by exposure to the sun and soiled from daily work. Even in Renaissance Europe many classical paintings depict women who, aside from looking well fed and well clothed, had very fair complexions. Kabuki Theater in Japan features all male casts and the actors whose faces where adorned with white makeup, especially when portraying womens characters.
The desire to conform to this standard has driven many people on a search to whiten darker skin pigments, even in some African cultures where dark skin pigmentation was thought to be an adaptation to environmental conditions especially the heat of the equatorial sun. The modern practice of skin whitening has been the cause of some controversy as dark skin pigmented individuals seek to shed their dark skin color in an attempt to gain cultural acceptance in predominantly white European societies. Differences in opinion on the perceived benefits of skin whitening have even arisen in India where women have been encouraged to lighten their skin in order to look more Western and possibly more attractive to potential romantic suitors. It is somewhat ironic that in the United States and Europe, many people light skinned people seek to darken their skin color by tanning, either in the sun, using a tanning bed or employing spray-on tanning products.
Not all skin lightening is done to create a particular look for the sake of fashion. Many people suffer from medical conditions that cause uneven skin pigmentations that can have a very negative impact on ones self image and skin lightening products can have help to even out the skin tone and greatly enhance self image and self confidence. Skin pigment disorders can occur when too little or too much of a compound known as melanin. The more melanin that is present in the skins cells the darker skin pigment tend to be.
For as long as there has been a desire to lighten the skin there have been potions and treatments used to achieve the goal of lighter skin. Homemade solutions and potions with roots in folklore have existed for many, many years. Some of these solutions were benign and fairly harmless, while some could very hazardous. In response to the need for reliable products, the cosmetics market has seen an increase in the number, quality and price of such products. Some products have been criticized for containing levels of mercury that are potentially hazardous.
Sunscreen has been used to prevent the darkening of the skin that occurs through exposure to the sun. On the other extreme is the use of products that actually lighten or even whiten skin pigmentations. A common goal of most skin whitening products is to block or greatly reduce the amount of melanin produced in the skin. Many topically applied creams and lotions contain concentrations of hydroquinone sometimes in combination with other ingredients that may enhance the lightening effects. Cortizone is often the secondary ingrediant since contrizone acts as an anti-inflammatory. There are numerous compounds that are used as alternatives to hydroquinone with varying results.
Medical lasers have been used to treat medically recognized skin pigmentation disorders thought there is debate about the overall effectiveness of this treatment depending on the degree of pigmentation.
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