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Whitening creams have been commented on plenty. They are dangerous, they do not work, they represent a superficial desire to get ‘gora’ – but their popularity does not seem to be going down.

Take Gulnaz Bibi. At 28 years of age, the desire to become fairer has never left her. So when she saw an ad that seemed more legitimate than the rest, she went for it.

“I was very happy when the claims of the TV ad came true and within five days my complexion was a lot fairer. Everyone started complementing me and I was so happy.”

“But, one day,” she went on, “my mother pointed out the hair that had started growing on my face, but I ignored it because I thought she was trying to save money and did not want me to buy the cream anymore. But then other people started pointing it out too and my face got so hairy that I could not ignore it anymore.”

It turned out that Bibi’s quest for fairer skin ended up leaving her with a skin disease.

Now Gulnaz Bibi is getting treatment from dermatology department of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) to get rid of the pigmentation and hair which appeared on her skin because of the use of that fairness cream.

Such stories are common, but in spite of that, even more stories keep emerging as (mostly) women keep trying to change their complexion.

Such girls become susceptible to the widespread advertisements on TV and elsewhere which promise instant results.

And in advertisements, skin whitening cream manufacturers show fair skin as a necessity for success and as means for achieving the ideal face and the much desired attention from the other sex. “It feels good when you see appreciation in others eyes for your smooth, glowing, fair and healthy skin,” claimed one ad and goes on to promise ‘unique’ and ‘quick’ results.

In fact a survey was conducted in 2010 to explore the potential product performance and affects of television advertisements for fairness creams in Pakistan. The survey found that fairness creams’ television ads overstate the product benefits and cause substantial side effects.

The survey also had interesting findings in terms of numbers. In Rawalpindi, among female university students, especially those girls who belong to the low socio-economic class and belong to the age group of 19-28 years, 56 per cent of the respondents experienced skin problems after using skin whitening products including itchiness, rashes, dryness, pimples, hardness and darkness of the skin.

This is not surprising given the fact that most of these fairness creams are non-prescription products bought without guidance from qualified doctors or experts. And the advertisements for these products fail to reveal the terrible side effects they can cause.

Dr. Ikram Ullah, Head of Dermatology Department, Pims, explained: “Skin whitening creams usually contain skin bleaching chemicals such as steroids, mercury salts and hydroquinone among other harsh and dangerous chemicals.”

He said that skin bleaching chemicals especially cause the skin to lose its thickness and tightness making it weaker. He revealed that very often, steroids are the main component of such creams which instantly turn the skin pale. According to him this is achieved because the steroids slow down blood circulation in the areas applied making the skin pale and giving the impression of fairness.

Doctors also reveal that other than steroids, another chemical that is abundantly found in skin whitening creams is mercury because it can be acquired relatively cheaply. Already known as a very poisonous chemical, in skin whitening creams, mercury comes in direct contact with skin, is absorbed into the blood stream and starts weakening the user’s immune system.

Dr. Ikram continues to receive a large number of teenage girls with skin problems caused by use of such fairness creams, and when he inquires how his patients find out about the cream, most patients responded that the source of their knowledge is mostly TV advertisements.

As products that use substantial chemicals, it is ethically incumbent upon advertisers not to make false or misleading claims and mention all possible side effects. But given that most manufacturers of such products are simply in the business to make money, such full disclosure cannot be expected without strict enforcement by the government.

Awareness is the key to fight this problem. While regulation of such misleading advertisements is ideal, the consumers themselves should investigate the authenticity of the product before exposing themselves to such strong chemicals.