The New York Times profiled 45 year-old Brooklynite Allison Ross, who has used lightening creams like Fair & White and Hyprogel for years to brighten the shade of her face, neck and hands.
But in addition to being lighter, Ross's skin now bruises at the slightest touch and is etched with persistent acne and red capillaries – all of which her doctor attributes to the side effects of undisclosed prescription-strength steroids found in the over-the-counter creams she has used.
"There's a basic assumption that there's some truth in labeling. That's a false assumption for the skin-lightening market," says Virginia Beach Dermatologist Dr. David McDaniel, who is also Director of the Skin Color Research Institute at Hampton University.
In countries running the gamut from the Philippines to India to South America, lightening your entire face or large areas of your body is a common goal, where people often see it as a way to climb up in social standing. And in these countries, it's not uncommon for women in the marriage market to be valued more "highly" because of a lighter complexion.
Just this past Fall, Dominican-born Chicago Cubs baseball player Sammy Sosa showed up at the Latin Grammies with skin lightened by several shades. Sosa admitted to using creams to lighten his skin as well as getting bleaching treatments.
But now doctors across the United States are seeing an increase in the number of patients suffering from unsightly skin lightening side effects.
"It's happening more because the Internet has been a great source for these patients to get physician-strength or prescription-strength products," says Washington D.C. Dermatologist Eliot F. Battle Jr. "The patients are Ph.D.'s to women from corporate America, teachers to engineers – the entire broad spectrum of women of color," Dr. Battle added.
The key ingredient offenders? The aggressive steroid clobetasol propionate is found in lightening creams in Hyprogel, even though it's only supposed to be used under the strict supervision of a physician. Hydroquinone – which is often prescribed by derms at four percent strength for short-term use on melasma and sunspots – has been showing up in bootleg over-the-counter versions in strengths as high as five percent.
While Fair & White creams are not supposed to include steroids, counterfeit tubes with unrevealed ingredients have been spotted in stores.
"We see it in new York, Miami, Chicago," says Dominique Tinkler, Manager of Product Development for Fair & White's American Distributor, the Mitchell Group. "I mean, it's everywhere now."
The best way to protect yourself? Don't purchase skin lightening creams without the detailed instructions of a board-certified doctor who will be able to safely guide you on exactly what you should buy and how you should use it.
And if it's just a brighter, more radiant complexion you want, skip the skin lighteners all together and instead opt for products that safely speed up cell turnover, with ingredients like glycolic acid and retinol.