After writing about BB Creams and their extreme popularity in Asia, I was pointed in the direction of another serum that has been huge for decades now. Fair and Lovely, a Unilever brand that promises to lighten dark skin, has become increasingly more profitable since its creation in the 1970s. According to Bloomberg, sales of skin whiteners in general recently increased 17 percent (to $432 million) in only 9 months. Research firm Global Industry Analysts believes that the worldwide market for skin lighteners will exceed the $2 billion mark by 2012.

While the creams are the biggest selling skincare product in India, they are also quite popular with Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians in the U.S., Canada, and other countries. The question is, are these products – specifically Fair and Lovely – safe? Do they work, and if so, how?

Before looking into Fair and Lovely product ingredients, it is important to be aware of what you should avoid in any skin whitening cream. Hydroquinone is perhaps the most controversial skin-lightening agent that you should keep a look out for. As of right now, the FDA has approved up to 2% usage in products, though the National Toxicology Program is currently conducting studies because of carcinogenetic concerns. Steroids, especially clobetasol, are another worry. According to a New York Times article, long term use of a whitening cream containing clobetasol may lead to paper thin, easily bruised skin, hypertension, elevated blood sugar, and stretch marks.

Arguably the most common substance that is often found in skin lightening creams – but shouldn’t be – is mercury. It is banned for use in cosmetics in Japan but, surprisingly, is only restricted in Europe, Canada and the U.S. However, the FDA limits mercury to 1 part per million or 0.0001%. Exposure to mercury can damage the brain, nervous system and kidneys, and is especially harmful to pregnant women who may actually poison their unborn children by using skin whitening creams containing the toxin.

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Do Fair and Lovely products contain any of these dangerous ingredients? Not according to their website. Though the company actually produces several versions of the Fair and Lovely cream, Preksha, a fellow TIA staff member, happened to come across the Fair and Lovely Multi Vitamin Cream For Clear Fair Skin at an Indian ayurvedic store in Queens, New York. At only $4.59, the serum is downright cheap. And the packaging makes no mention of hydroquinone, clobetasol or mercury. There are some other components to watch out for, though.

There are concerns regarding tocopheryl acetate and pyridoxine hydrochloride regarding cancer and contact dermatitis. Fair and Lovely also lists the less than stellar phenoxyethanol, methyl paraben and propyl paraben in its ingredients. And most worrisome is Fair and Lovely’s final, ambiguous ingredient: perfume. All in all, though, this is certainly not the most frightening list of ingredients I have come across.

I couldn’t figure out exactly what the lightening agent in Fair and Lovely was until I read their FAQ section. Supposedly, the combination of vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and sunscreen agents help to protect and lighten skin. According to one study, niacinamide decreased hyperpigmentation and increased skin lightness in subjects, and works by inhibiting melanosome transfer.

While this is good news for prospective Fair and Lovely users, you should keep in mind that there have been several cases of people suffering severe side effects from whitening creams that either did not fully disclose ingredients or that were tampered with reproductions of actual whitening products. A Vietnamese skin-whitening cream has even been linked to the death of a 23-year-old woman.

As I researched Fair and Lovely, I came across more than one study (conducted by the same group of researchers) that claimed that Fair and Lovely does indeed contain mercury – though in small amounts. Still, the researchers noted changes in the brains, livers and kidneys of mice they applied the cream to, indicating toxicity. While there weren’t other available resources proving Fair and Lovely’s supposed mercury content, I wouldn’t take this limited information lightly.

See Truth In Aging's Five Best for even skin tone, and see all our FIVE BEST recommendations including Five Best for sagging skin, Five Best with vitamin C and Five Best eye creams

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