At the time of this writing, the date is June 28th, 2009, three days after King of Pop Michael Jackson’s death. I’m watching a VH1 special on him as I write; they’re showing his video of “Black or White.” Though we can discuss the meaning of the song until the cows come home, Michael made it abundantly clear that a major theme of the lyrics deals with his controversial color change.
Historically speaking, skin lightening has been linked to the racial prejudices that Michael Jackson’s song spoke so passionately on way back in 1991. The specifics on colonial mentality and race supremacy do not need a mention here, save that they go hand in hand with legitimate conditions with regard to the pigmentation of human skin. What follows is not a guide for colored persons attempting to escape the confines of their race, but a pointer for people trying to understand the procedure and whether or not they need it.
What Is Skin Lightening?
Skin lightening refers to any procedure targeted at removing or blocking pigmentation from human skin. Traditionally, the procedure is done by applying topical substances like hydroquinone in the form of salves or ointments to break down melanin, the cause of skin color. Since melanin’s main function is to block ultraviolet damage to skin, the practice can be dangerous, especially for older remedies that may contain toxic mercury. Other substances like makeup or sun block can reduce melanin production, but these are not permanent removals of existing color.
Modern medicine has provided more radical solutions to removing melanin. They are frequently applied in tandem with targeted lotions that inhibit melanin production. The most common are chemical skin peels, which use acids to dissolve existing pigmentation. Not only do they dissolve pigments, they literally melt away the top layer of skin and force the body to grow a new one. The practice is used on a smaller scale to remove moles and other discolorations, and can run anything from $160 glycolic acid peels to $1100 phenol peels, per treatment.
For a more dramatic story, you can also ask your dermatologist to burn the color away with a death ray straight out of War of the Worlds. Laser treatments are more powerful and more targeted, which makes them perfect for freckles and tattoos. You can also freeze the stuff off with cryosurgery, which reduces scarring and damage to the area.
Should I Get Lightened?
Most people can obtain skin lightening even without an existing condition or psychological evaluation. If you’re looking to get a peel done, be aware that several treatments may be necessary even for a small spot, and a full-body lightening will involve a long, expensive process. In addition, each treatment comes with recovery time for the skin to grow back, which will certainly impede your professional and social life.
There are a myriad of skin conditions that may require lightening to return to a healthy appearance. In the case of Michael Jackson, he was diagnosed with vitiligo, where the pigment producing melanocytes died off in his gloved hand. On the other end of the spectrum, melasma, chloasma or solar lentigenes are the most common conditions that cause excessive skin darkening.
What Are The Benefits?
Melanin is a necessary chemical in the human skin, but excessive amounts can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Medically speaking, a person will likely benefit from a skin lightening only if they have a preexisting condition. Ask your dermatologist about whether your condition has done permanent damage to your skin in order to ascertain the necessity for skin lightening.
What Are The Risks?
Skin lightening in most circumstances means a reduced protection from ultraviolet rays and skin cancers. A phenol peel in particular permanently destroys the ability to make melanin, and unless you’re a vampire, that means no more fun in the sun, ever.
Since these procedures are essentially destroying your skin, there is also the possibility of scarring, infection, and painful irritation- and those are only the expected side effects.
Even for an international pop icon like Michael Jackson, the decision to get skin lightening is not a light one. If the procedure is worth the change of appearance to you, or if it is necessary for your circumstances, please look into the specific procedure you want done and be sure it is the right one for you.