Yesterday, an editorial appeared in the British Medical Journal that urged UK regulators to step up warnings against the use of glutathione, a type of peptide, in skin bleaching procedures. Aside from limited evidence of its effectiveness, glutathione has no established guidelines for safety and the FDA and Dermatology Society in the Philippines have both issued advisory warnings against its use.
In Brief: Skin Bleaching
Skin bleaching is a type of cosmetic procedure where oral or injected agents are used to lighten skin color. Skin bleaching is done for purely cosmetic purposes, as opposed to a dermatologist treating a pigment-related skin condition; the substances used for skin lightening differ between each form. The editorial refers to anecdotal evidence that glutathione injections are becoming more prevalent in beauty and aesthetic clinics, and is often administered by non-medical personnel.
The Costs of Skin Bleaching
Aside from potentially high financial costs, glutathione can have negative health consequences as well. Several serious problems have been reported by patients who’ve received glutathione injections, including kidney or liver toxicity, nervous system toxicity, and transient headaches. The most severe effects reported have been Stevens Johnson syndrome (flu symptoms, rashes and blisters, followed by skin death) and toxic epidermal necrolysis—where the epidermis becomes detached from the underlying layers of skin. There is also some concern that the way glutathione works in the body could theoretically increase someone’s risk of skin cancer.
The key words here are “reported” and “theoretically.” No one knows how likely these side effects are, or if they even come from glutathione. According to the editorial, no published clinical trials about glutathione for skin bleaching currently exist. All the author was able to find were a small number of studies showing potential skin-lightening effects, but no formal clinical research. This distinction is important because clinical trials are necessary not only to help further establish effectiveness, but also to test for side effects, dosage levels, and other key pieces of information needed to ensure treatments are delivered in a safe and effective manner.
Based on the available information, the author considers the use of glutathione for skin bleaching to be an unacceptable practice and are calling on UK government agencies to issue warnings against the substance’s use.
Dadzie, O., “Unethical skin bleaching with glutathione,” British Medical Journal, 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4386.