Egypt’s chlorine craze: How fair skin obsession has taken a dangerous turn

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Obsession with fair skin is not new to Egypt, the Arab region, or generally countries with a predominantly dark-skinned population.

This obsession was particularly highlighted with the emergence of whitening products that promised several shades lighter in the shortest time and plus of course always linking being “fair” to becoming “lovely.”

However, with those products gradually becoming old news, Egyptian women are coming up with new recipes for a fairer skin. One of the most common, and most controversial for that matter, is chlorine.

Interest in the use of chlorine for cosmetic purposes started with a study published in November 2013 by the School of Medicine at Stanford University, California. According to the study, “animals bathed in the bleach solution experienced less severe skin damage and better healing and hair regrowth than animals bathed in water.”

Chlorine, the study added, can also aid in the treatment of skin damage caused by radiation, aging, or excessive sun exposure. US-based Plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Shapiro, admitted that several skin problems are treated with bleach-based creams.

“The ingredient helps make collagen thicker, and I do see how bleach can be a potentially promising product for anti-aging,” he said. However, he objected to its use by women at home since there has to be an exact dilution rate which can only be accurately produced by chemists. Otherwise, serious damage can occur including burning the skin if the concentration rate is too high. That is why using bleach for skin treatment still needs “a great amount of work,” as Shapiro put it.

It was quite recently that Egyptian women got wind of the link between chlorine and skin whitening and immediately after chlorine baths became the rage as dozens of pages on social media and a considerable number of self-proclaimed beauty experts recommended the use of bleach as the ideal way of getting a fairer skin. According to women rights activist Entesar al-Saeid, the bleach craze is only part of the general obsession with whiteness amongst Egyptian women and which, she argues, is mainly triggered by the media and society. “Movies and commercials always promote the idea that white women are more beautiful and society supports this assumption by linking beauty to fair skin,” she said. “Of course, beauty companies take advantage of this when they release whitening products.”

Saeid added that when dark-skinned women are always portrayed as ugly and are discriminated against by society, they are willing to do whatever it takes to get a lighter complexion.

“They are even ready to use dangerous chemicals such as chlorine in order to gain acceptance and become more attractive.”

For Saeid, the use of chlorine is also linked to financial status since most Egyptian women cannot afford consulting expensive beauty centers or doctors about healthier ways of whitening their skin.

Egyptian dermatologist Hani al-Nazer said that many Egyptian women follow pages and videos which recommend chlorine for a whiter skin. “Some of those recipes recommend applying bleach to darker areas of the skin and others recommend taking chlorine baths in which women add chlorine to water,” he said. “These are all myths.”

Nazer explained that bleach is a chemical substance that has a dangerous impact on the skin, including burns.

“One of the common myths many women believe in is that it is possible to unify the color of the skin in the entire body, but this is scientifically not possible.” Nazer noted that in cases of women who have areas darker than others in their bodies, cosmetics and whitening material in general does not work. “A doctor needs to be consulted in order to deal medically with the discoloration.”

Videos that recommend the use of bleach to whiten the skin usually promote this method as extremely safe. While those videos are usually posted by non-experts, they in many cases confirm that have consulted experts. In one of those, for example, the woman who posted he video stresses that “the most prominent dermatologist in Egypt” confirmed that chlorine is 100% safe for a whiter skin and claims that women who use it will get five shades lighter. In this video, the woman particularly advises women who are about to get married, in reference to the traditional link between a beautiful bride and fair skin, to use bleach for a whiter skin. She also stresses that chlorine is very effective in whitening the genitalia. She recommends filling the bath tub and adding one cup of chlorine then soaking in the mixture for 10 minutes and repeating the process three times a week. “Through this ritual you will no longer need beauty centers or Moroccan baths,” she says.

On the other hand, following several problematic cases, other videos were posted by Egyptian women to warn of the dangers of this method. In one of those videos, the woman, who always publishes beauty tips on You Tube, does admit that chlorine has a magical effect since it does make the skin whiter and softer, “baby-like,” as she puts it, which was demonstrated in the cases of many women who used did Clorox baths, yet it has very serious effects. She asks women to make an experiment to prove her point.

“If instead of adding a few drops of Clorox to remove stains, you add more than needed, you’ll find that piece you added it to extremely worn out or torn. This is simply because of the strong chemicals it contains,” she says. “In fact, just inhaling chlorine is risky.” She added that women are usually advised to wear gloves while using chlorine and detergents in general because of those chemicals. “Women who don’t wear gloves and use detergents regularly have very dry hands, itching, and at times burns.” If this is applied to the entire body, she notes, it will lead, in addition to the previous effects, to fast aging. “Even though chlorine concentration rates in swimming pools are calculated and safe, regular swimmers still suffer from dryness and at times other dermatological problems such as eczema.”

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