Sigmund Freud, the famed psychoanalyst raised the question and it is still not answered, at least as far as appearance is concerned. Why is it, for example, women of color want to whiten their skins and women with white skin sit in the sun to darken theirs? My sister has curly hair and I have straight hair. She has her hair straightened and I have mine curled.

The price for changing the skin and the hair with which you were born may have unwanted side-effects.

It is well known, of course that too much sun may cause skin cancer and hair straighteners and permanents employ such compounds as thioglycolic acids  in hair straighteners and permanent wave solutions. Thioglycolic acid compounds can cause severe allergic reactions and skin irritations. They are on the Canadian Hotlist which cites cosmetic that have potential adverse effects or which have been banned.

There are two other consumer ingredients in the news lately–arsenic and rhodendronol.

In the Seventh Edition of A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients I wrote about arsenic that has different organic and inorganic forms: “The toxicology of arsenic compounds varies tremendously.  Methylated arsenic in fish is fairly inert and non-toxic. Inorganic trivalent arsenic is the most water soluble and toxic.”  

Several Poison Free Poultry bills have been pigeon holed by Congress since 2011. Pfizer, however, took its arsenic-laced feed product, Roxarsone off the market when it was discovered chickens’ livers turned it into organic arsenic, a potentially harmful substance.

The Dr. Oz TV show got under the FDA’s skin when it described the arsenic found in baby food rice and upset a lot of parents. US government agencies then commented the amount of arsenic in the rice was too low to be harmful. Being exposed to low levels for a long time, the scientific and historical literature reveals, can change the color of your skin. In fact, in some cultures women used arsenic, to give themselves the pale appearance deemed beautiful in the old days.  Arsenic can also cause the skin to be sensitive to light and break out in a rash or to swell. Ingesting small amounts of arsenic can cause corns and warts. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause death.

Arsenic can be found in food, such as rice, because it is prevalent in groundwater. It is largely the result of minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soils. Several types of cancer have been linked to arsenic in water

Compounds containing arsenic are also deliberately added to hair tonics and hair dyes where it may cause contact dermatitis. The limit of arsenic in cosmetic colors is 0.0002 percent.

The other ingredient in the news recently is Rhododenol, an active brightening ingredient developed by a Japanese company, Kanebo Cosmetics. Rhododenol is chemical a natural ingredient present in many plants including the white birch tree. It is used by Kanebo Cosmetics in synthetic form. It binds with tyrosinase, the enzyme related to the generation of melanin. Melanin is the primary determinant of your skin color. The more melanin there is in your skin, hair or eyes, the darker they will be.

Kanebo Cosmetics gained approval from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for use of Rhododenol as an active quasi-drug ingredient in January 2008. Since its development, Rhododenol became a main ingredient in most of the skin brightening products by Kanebo and other cosmetics companies.

Hundreds of reports by consumers saying white blotches appeared on their necks, hands and faces upon application of the product to these areas. In some users inflammation accompanied the white blotches.

In July 2013, Kanebo decided to recall its products containing Rhododenol after studies showed the ingredient” may not be as effective at it claims to be.”

The skin-whitening industry is booming, especially in Asia. The products, which gradually lighten the skin, are a part of a multi-billion dollar industry catering to citizens of countries where fair skin is synonymous with beauty, higher social position and wealth. Companies are scrambling to develop the next hot product in a culture that for centuries has identified light skin as a status symbol—because it proved that a woman was exempt from field work.

The Self-Tanning Product Manufacturing industry, on the other hand, has seen a meteoric rise in revenue since the turn of the millennium and is not expected to soon slow down. Ironically, one of the biggest players in the Self-Tanning business is Kanebo, the Japanese firm that produces skin whitening products.

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