Jun 23, 2005|
While Europeans and North Americans embrace the sun, happily baking until golden, many Hong Kong girls are at the opposite end of the spectrum, obsessed with staying white. Chinese culture has long had us believe that having white and pure skin is a signature of beauty, youth and aristocracy. But just as extreme tanning techniques are dangerous, so too are extreme whitening techniques (um, Michael Jackson).
The summer sun may be the enemy of a lot of Hong Kong women, but it's a profitable friend of cosmetics companies. They have a deluge of products and treatments offering the magic key to the perfect porcelain look. The products range from creams to lasers, and they promise everything from toning to burning away visible blood vessels. Is any of this healthy for you or your skin? Maybe not.
The dangers of overexposure to the sun are well known, but similar pitfalls await the skin whitener. The chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dr. Andrew Burd, comments on the whole concept of skin whitening and its possible adverse effects: "Another term for skin whitening is 'skin bleaching' and this has the more appropriate - and negative - connotation. You are attacking the skin in the same way you treat a T-shirt with a stain on it." He adds that, like many drugs, the major danger is rebound overcompensation - which is called hyperpigmentation when in its worst form. So do some of the more intense products and treatments out there approach such dangers?
The countless skin whitening creams, essences, toners, masks, soaps and even shower gels mostly claim the ability to dig deep into your skin and whiten from the inside out. Specifically, they penetrate the epidermis (the deeper skin layer) to eliminate dark spots and fight the formation of dull, uneven skin - thereby, hopefully, leaving your outer layer of skin pure as snow. But the promised perfection doesn't come in one day. According to Unique Beauty manager Ming Wong, how long it takes for these products to work depends greatly on how concentrated they are. In general, the skin needs three to four weeks to react to the whiteners. Those that claim miraculous snowmaking abilities are likely to contain such strong ingredients as highly concentrated AHA (enzymes) and BHA (salicylic acid). These two acids are commonly found in exfoliants. Since they work by getting rid of the dead skin on the surface, skin seems to be "whitened" because the top layer is peeled off like the skin from an apple. Although they do help balance the skin tone, dermatologist Dr. Henry Chan Hin-lee says frequent application of these two ingredients poses a strong risk to fragile and irritated skin (keep peeling that apple and see what happens). He adds that mild vitamin C and E, green tea and soya extract, as well as UVA and UVB protection materials, are positive elements in whitening products. But, as with AHA, they are also not recommended for sensitive skin.
Short of spending your life indoors, you'll sooner or later have to go face the sun. Since the amount of exposure to the sun greatly determines the condition of your skin, Wong advises the use of sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 whenever you venture into the sun for an extended period of time. This protects against UV rays, thus preventing damage to the skin before you're forced to turn to whitening products. The sunscreen should be applied every three to five hours, depending on the SPF.
However, anything higher than SPF 30 can have adverse effects: pores can become blocked and, if they do, the skin will no longer be able to breathe, leading to spots and blemishes. Wong also emphasizes the importance of careful cleansing after the application of sunscreen. Without thorough cleansing and moisturizing, no amount of sunscreen or whitening chemicals will be able to work their magic.
The bottom line is consumers should always be aware of the ingredients in their products and not get carried away by the false promise of immediate whitening. Many products may be repackaged abrasives, which are not for everyone. Different skin types require different, customized products, so consult a dermatologist or skin therapist before deciding how to realize your porcelain dreams. Patch testing is also recommended when you try a new whitener. Apply the product to a limited area, such as your wrist, or the back of your ear, to see whether you have negative reactions.
Intense Pulsed Light, or IPL, is the hot new treatment on the market. This therapy uses strategic, low-level lasers to correct blemishes. The laser reacts with the blemish in such a way as to release it as heat energy, thereby lightening trouble spots on the skin. In other words, they burn dark spots off. Lisa Mak, the general manager of Bodywize, which practices the procedure, claims different rays can penetrate into both superficial and deep skin tissues, curing uneven skin caused by broken blood vessels, freckles and pigmentation. For maximum effectiveness, the treatment should be done for 20 minutes every four weeks. Following this regimen, the results would last about six months. Once the entire treatment is complete, it shouldn't be done again for another year. Mak stresses the need to avoid direct sunlight after each treatment, but if you're burning your face with a laser to stay white, you'll probably have a parasol on hand.
While many swear by this treatment, statistics from the Consumer Council show complaints against laser therapies are rising. Plan carefully before you decide to undergo this therapy. Since the results last for only six months and you have to wait a year before you can do it again, it means you'll be living on a six-month cycle oscillating between Snow White and the Wicked Witch. Dr. Chan says people should seek professional consultation before and during the treatments. "IPL has to be conducted by doctors," he says. "It would not be safe if no doctors or registered physicians are there in charge of the machines to monitor skin reactions. If used improperly, skin can burn, and even blindness is possible." Pregnant women, the light sensitive, those with broken skin, and those with skin conditions are advised not against it. In general, you should exercise caution before allowing anyone to point a laser at your face.
If you insist on having your skin lightened, follow the rules laid down by the pros. Dr. Burd urges people to identify their skin types before trying whiteners. Different skin types need different products mostly because of potential reactions with the base ingredients, which vary in PH and hydrating composition. Learn to recognize the warning signs of products that may be mismatched with your skin type. Redness or rashes on your face mean something's not going well with your treatment - they’re certainly not signs of improvement. Stop applications if rashes and redness persist. Reputable, high-quality manufacturers should be preferred and more natural products should be sought. Retinol is a form of Vitamin A and helps reduce freckles and stretch marks in the skin. Citric extracts containing Vitamin C can also help lighten the skin and reduce wrinkling. And perhaps the most important thing for your complexion is oxygen. If you've seen your skin darker or discolored after a night of hard drinking and smoking, cut back.
But if you're the kind of person who wants everything, vices and all, then there are still some options. Your first priority is to start with skin balancing and adjustment treatments to even the skin tone. For oily skin, you should start combating the pimples immediately so as to avoid intensive and prolonged whitening treatments later. To possess a creamy white skin, the rule is to rejuvenate. Treat your skin daily with cleansers and moisturizers and have regular facials. This kind of slow and steady treatment is highly effective at maintaining healthier, whiter skin. Abrasives and lasers are extreme measures. I hope I don't need to invoke Michael Jackson again to remind you that, sometimes, extreme measures have extreme consequences.
Unique Beauty Room 509, Hong Kong Pacific Centre, 28 Hankow Road, Tsim Sha Tsui 23690399
Bodywize Shop 18B, 18-20 Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley 2838580