How Sammy Sosa Went Back to Black

It turns out that the effects of skin whiteners can be reversed. An explainer.

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Sammy Sosa caused quite a stir last year when he showed up at the Latin Grammy’s with a jarringly lighter skin complexion. But as of last weekend, it seems Sammy has gone back to black.

It has some people questioning how a cream so powerful that it can bleach your entire face could wear off so completely--and so quickly.

Is it really possible? Absolutely.

Whether you’re using a prescription bleaching cream or an over-the-counter variety, there are no creams on the market that can permanently lighten your complexion. Sure, using bleaching creams repeatedly over a short period of time could give you the Sammy Sosa effect. But soon after you stop using them, your skin reverts back to its natural color. The real irony is that long-term abuse of many bleaching creams can actually lead to ochronosis--a darkening and thickening of the skin. So how do the creams work?

Well, first you need to understand what makes skin light or dark. Our skin color is determined by a pigment called melanin, produced by melanocytes (cells) in our skin. That pigment then gets bundled into little packages called melanosomes, which are shipped off to our skin cells and dispersed to produce what we know as our complexion.

Skin-lightening creams work in number of ways. Medications like hydroquinone and Arbutin work by inhibiting the enzymes that create melanin. Others, like soy and Retin A, inhibit the transfer of melanosomes to the skin cells. And some, like glycolic acids, exfoliate the skin to remove a layer of cells. They all work by targeting pigment and its production at different levels. But Dr. Eliot Battle, CEO and cosmetic dermatologist at the Cultura Dermatology and Laser Center in Washington, D.C., calls hydroquinone the “gold standard of bleaching creams.” It’s the most common and most effective, despite recent FDA findings that it can cause cancer in uncontrolled dosages.

Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian-American community issues and cultural trends.