25/01/2017 17:24 SAST | Updated 13/02/2017 17:09 SAST

How Safe Is The Skin-Lightening Drip Khanyi Mbau Is Using? Doctors Don't Actually Know

The shift to higher end skin lightening techniques among celebrities and the rich still isn't particularly safe.

If you thought we'd entered an era of being comfortable in your own skin, you'd be mistaken. Some estimates put the worth of the global skin-lightening market at anywhere between $10 billion and $20 billion, largely owing to growth in Asia.

In India, marketers for renowned and respected brands aren't shy about what they're offering. Vaseline promises "fairer looking skin", Olay offers whitening products with names like White Radiance and Natural White, and Hindustan Unilever claims its Fair and Lovely range can keep you "fair and radiant".

On the surface, South Africa has avoided this trap. As a nation, our push against skin lightening came even before the country embraced non-racialism. Sustained pressure from dermatologists and public health officials brought about a ban on over-the-counter use of dangerous skin-lightening compounds like mercury and hydroquinone all the way back in the '80s. The country also banned advertising that claims to "bleach", "lighten" or "whiten" skin.

But the reality is not so simple. Marketing of skin-lightening products has simply moved towards more supposedly wholesome words, like "brightening" and "toning". Port authorities regularly seize shipments of skin bleaching products containing banned substances, but they continue to slip across the borders. It's easy to find skin-lightening creams and soaps at roadside stalls, train stations and informal markets, and they're still widely used. A 2015 study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, found that one in three Durban women used skin lighteners.

George Mulala / Reuters
Damaging skin-lightening products are still widely used in South Africa despite strict advertising regulations and a ban on dangerous components like hydroquinone and mercury.

People at the top end of the market though, are not buying their products on the side of the road. Celebrities like actress Khanyi Mbau get their skin lightening through intravenous drips of glutathione and vitamin C.

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that occurs naturally in foods, and in recent years it's taken off as a skin supplement. It's been touted as a complementary treatment for everything from cancer and Parkinson's disease to high blood pressure but in beauty circles it's known for rejuvenating and lightening skin.

You can find it in an oral form in shops, buy it over the internet or, if you have deep pockets, you can find a doctor to provide you with IV infusions of it. (At a couple of thousand rand a pop, and repeat treatments needed to maintain the lighter skin tone, they don't come cheap.)

But a 2015 update from the United States Federal Drug Agency said the agency has not approved any injectable drugs for skin whitening or lightening. The agency warned that injectable products, which could include glutathione, vitamin C, collagen and even human placenta, were "potentially unsafe and ineffective, and might contain unknown harmful ingredients or contaminants".

"Although the average consumer may not assume so, these products are unapproved new drugs," it said.

"Glutathione exploded when [actresses] Mshoza and Khanyi Mbau got involved with it. And that was a huge exposure for that particular treatment," says Lester Davids, a professor of cell biology who's written extensively on skin lightening.

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Davids co-authored a paper on the use of intravenous glutathione for skin lightening that was published in the South African Medical Journal in August last year.

The authors said that despite widespread reported use, there are no studies of intravenous glutathione use for skin lightening or its safety in chronic use. They recommended that the treatment be urgently assessed for potential side effects, particularly as it can be bought online.

"The scary thing about it is you don't know what the consequential effects of it are. You don't know what the maximum dose of glutathione that your body can handle is. We don't know if your organs or blood is affected," said Davids.

The package on colourism that Huffington Post South Africa is publishing today came from a conversation in the office as we were getting ready to launch: "Guys, we should do a video on all the ridiculous things dark-skinned women hear all the time." The choruses of "Yes!" and the stream of anecdotes – funny and awful – showed that this was an untapped well of stories waiting to be told in South Africa. We are aware that colourism exists but we're still likely to joke about "yellow bones" with the rest of our friends. Conversations about why every aspect of this culture is problematic is silenced with: "But skin lightening is a personal choice". Except that it isn't. In our series of stories we show the harmful effects of this obsession in our society – from a personal, social and economic point of view. We look at how illegal creams are still sold and how upmarket legal alternatives are still questionable. We look into small communities, like Indians in South Africa, where colourism still thrives, and talk to celebrities about why they lightened their skin. Because as a dark-skinned woman myself, I'm ready for change, and so is our society. – Verashni Pillay, Editor-in-Chief