Seemal Desai, a dermatologist in Plano, Texas, has noticed more dark-skinned clients requesting the "service" over the last couple of years. And time and time again, he has turned them away. The black-market ask? IV drips of glutathione, a powerhouse antioxidant naturally found in our bodies. Its most notable side effect, however, is lightening the skin by deactivating the enzyme tyrosinase, which helps produce melanin.
Desai, who is also the president of the Skin of Color Society, is troubled by the ethical implications of the non-regulated treatment, mostly administered at med-spas. “My first question is ‘Why are you unhappy with your skin [color]?’” Desai says. He, like many of his peers, points to a complex answer: As our global society becomes less white and more blended, color perhaps even more than race, which technically can’t be seen becomes a deeper signifier of one’s place in the world and of one’s beauty.
And as cultural ideas of beauty become more globalized, “messages about whiteness are very much a part of that beauty,” says Usha Tummala-Narra, an associate professor of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology at Boston College, who adds that this thinking can afford a person higher social stature, public acceptance, and greater access to jobs. The skin-lightening market has always been a robust one, and for decades, bleaching creams were its core.
Sarah Thompson*, who is Asian and African-American, has been using skin lightening creams for years and came upon the lightening effects of glutathione drips by accident. Thompson had been suffering from digestion problems and discovered that the glutathione infusions, which she gets at a med-spa, remedied her stomach issues and left her skin noticeably brighter. “It revitalizes me, and I feel amazing,” she says. Dermatologists suspect patients get accustomed to the hydration and vitamins. “We know IV glutathione has benefits as an antioxidant, but it hasn’t been proven in any randomized clinical trials that it’s safe or effective for skin lightening,” says Desai. “After an infusion, your skin may look temporarily lighter, and you probably feel better.”
Beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an inherent danger in letting someone inject an unregulated fluid into your veins. “What else is in there?” Desai asks. “Are there other antioxidants that may be counterproductive or cause problems?” In the Philippines, glutathione IVs were ubiquitous in neighborhood spas until 2011, when reports of serious skin rashes, thyroid issues, and kidney failure led to a ban by the country's government, and last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that injectable skin lighteners were unsafe.