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History of Skin Whitening Soaps

For more than 500 years skin-whitening soaps were produced as "Antiseptic Soaps" with ingredients such as ammoniated mercury, potassium mercuric iodide, other toxic mercuric compounds, carboxylic acid and its hydroquinone derivatives.

These whitening soaps were household trend consumables and were estimated that more than US$ 100 billion worth of these whitening (aka: antiseptic) soaps were sold in the African continent alone in the past 50 years!


The 1950's

In the early 1950s users of mercuric, carboxylic and phenol -hydroquinone based whitening / antiseptic soaps suffered from Ochronosis [1] and Alkaptonuria [2] as a direct result of using these types of soaps. These cases were known based on extensive medical studies on the prevalent epidemical medical conditions of whitening / antiseptic soap users.

The 1960's

The large multinationals had by now discontinued the use of mercuric, carboxylic acid and phenol-hydroquinone in their branded soaps, but the smaller soap manufacturers however did not!

Smaller manufacturers (mainly East Indian firms) in these countries grabbed the opportunity of the market vacuum and continued to supply soaps containing "banned" ingredients to the still existing, excessive demand.

This saw the introduction of "Robert Brand", "Bukilsal" and "Robert Medicated" antiseptic soap whose main purposes were for skin-whitening effect; emerging as Intra-Africa national soap brands.



In 1997, Nigeria was the last country in Africa to ban the manufacture, importation, and use of these soap brands and the use of mercuric compounds, carboxylic acid, phenols and hydroquinones in all local soap manufacturing.

The EEC too implemented the ban on importation of these types of antiseptic / whitening soaps for its African ethnic populations.

Additionally, the regulatory requirements for INCI names listing of the ingredients on soap packaging finally ended the deadly saga of untold human sufferings spanning more than half a century.



There are 3 types of whitening products available in the market today:

1) those containing sunscreens;

2) those containing light reflection ingredients; and

3) those containing ingredients that actually produce a chemical change to the skin.



Whilst the whitening effect of some agents is evident, some are also believed to damage the skin, produce skin irritation and reddening.

Hydroquinone , which became the first popular widely used product, carries the risk of irritation resulting in oedema, erythema and desquamation. Usage of these products were banned in many countries in Asia because of the numerous side effects.

Hydroquinone has been banned throughout the European Union since January 2001.

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[1]Deposition & accumulation of dark brown pigment in bone cartilage, bone joint capsules and other tissues, usually resulted of Alkaptonuria

[2] Alkaptonuria is congenital absence (in off-springs of users) of homogentisic acid oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down tyrosine and phenylalanine.



As of January 2001, cosmetic products containing the ingredient Hydroquinone are banned in the EU & UK. This comes about after more than 10 years of lobbying by safety campaigners & organisations all over the world.


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