If I had £1 for every time I have stood in front of a mirror and wished there wasn’t such a pale face staring back, or stared at my white, pasty legs in the summer wishing I had nice bronzed limbs, I would be a multi-millionaire. I naturally have very curly hair and always wanted it to be straight. My friends with straight hair say they prefer curly. I used to dream of having a big bust. Those blessed with such often dream of less. It seems to be a case of the grass always being greener in our own minds and in the way we look at ourselves. But if you could permanently change these aspects of your physical self, would you? Changing your body temporarily is one thing, but a permanent change is a much more dramatic and final “improvement”.

When it comes to the colour of your skin, it is generally accepted that a permanent change is dangerous, bad for your health and above all, “vain”. Little is known of the long-term consequences of such products as skin whitening (or bleaching) creams or tanning injections. In September of this year, a controversial cream was released by Dr Organic and is sold in health food chain Holland & Barrett stores nationwide, it’s the Royal Jelly Body Skin Whitening Cream, this questionable product received backlash in the media for “exploiting racism”, with race equality charities campaigning for its removal from the shelves. With such dramatic skin-enhancing properties, these products are deemed as highly dangerous in this country but are still readily available. So why are we striving to be different to how we were originally created?

Having a bronzed “glow” for the summer is, in our part of the world, deemed the desired look. White, pasty legs like mine on the beach are a general no-no. From a glow in a bottle to baking in a tanning bed to getting a professional spray tan, there are many ways in which both men and women achieve this bronzed god/goddess look. But tanning injections are taking this craze to the next level.

“We are warning people not to use this product. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Melanotan offers a shortcut to a safer and more even tan”. That is a statement released by David Carter from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Tanning injections are as medically sinister as they sound, containing the drug Melanotan, a synthetic hormone that works by increasing the levels of melanin, the natural pigment of the skin. Costing around £60 for a month’s supply, this is ultimately a cheaper, albeit dangerous option for an intense tan. So it comes as little surprise that so far, the main market has been teenagers and those looking for a quick fix.

Currently illegal in the UK and most of Europe, these injections can only be bought online and are yet to be officially tested for safety, effectiveness and quality. Some that use them however, generally have positive reviews, despite most experiencing side effects. Olivia Mansson, a fashion student from Sweden says, “I would definitely recommend them if you want a darker skin colour for a longer period of time but not if you don’t like freckles. It took two or three weeks for the best colour to show but before that, I started getting a lot of freckles.”

Freckles aside, the full extent of the side effects caused by the injections are unknown. Users report of experiencing nausea, a loss of appetite and an elevated sex drive at the lower end of the scale, more sinister side effects thought to be linked with the use of the injections include stomach and heart problems as well as blood and eye disorders. Side effects aside, the process also carries major risk of infection due to unhygienic practices and addiction to the drug and its effects have also been reported. Despite such little medical research that has gone into Melanotan as well as the warnings issued by healthcare professionals, Mansson still believes in the product’s efficiency stating, “Obviously injections aren’t good for your skin, so it’s better to not use these products, but if you’re unhappy in your skin then why not try to change it if it makes you happier?” So why not embrace your skin’s natural hue? “I think that I look better in tanned skin, I feel more attractive being tanned. I also think that pale skin is beautiful, it just doesn’t suit me.”

The quest for the “natural glow” is also achieved by some from the other end of the beauty spectrum. Whitening creams have been on the market in Asia for many years with well known European and American brands such as Dior, Olay, No7, Max Factor, Clarins and L’Oreal (to name just a few) creating products for the market targeting skin bleaching. Born and raised in Hong Kong, 43 year-old Kinnie Hung believes white skin reigns supreme, “In my country, we prefer white skin. We have a saying – ‘One white face can hide three ugly faces’”. Niporn Kent from Thailand agrees saying, “I like white skin because I think it looks clean and bright”. Global sales of such whitening products are projected to reach $19.8 billion by 2018 based primarily on the growth in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The highest quality of skin whitening products are produced in Europe, however the ingredients in some of the products are banned from being sold here, such as mercurous chloride and hydroquinone. Hermione Lawson of the British Skin Foundation says, “Unfortunately, many skin-lightening creams contain illegal compounds that can damage your health. The common compounds are high-dose steroids”. With such diverse ideals of beauty across the globe, it is interesting to hear how Kent and Hung view those in the west tanning their skin deliberately, “Actually, I don’t agree to people making their skin darker. I think they have a nice colour of skin already”, says Kent.

The irony in skin tone modification from the tanning injections to the whitening creams is that both are aiming to achieve a “glow”. A white glow, or a bronzed glow – it doesn’t matter how we see it, a glow is something that comes from within. So why does this “faux glow” mean so much to us? Perhaps we need to relax and let our inner glow shine through; after all, a natural glow cannot be bought in a tube, pot, bottle or vial; we are lit from within.

Photo credit: Nicole Jenet

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