Claim: Glutathione IV therapy for skin whitening has no side effects.
Verdict: Misleading. Medical research has shown that kidney failure, skin cancers, or even death could occur from unauthorized use. Also, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has issued disclaimers regarding the unregulated use of such products.
The silent ‘war’ against black skin has been on for decades. Black women are made to believe they are not as beautiful as their white/fair counterparts.
As a result, some African women try to modify their skin type with perceived harmful ‘skincare’ products. The ingredients contain chemicals like hydroquinone and Kojic acid, typically used to treat hyperpigmentation.
While the chemicals are not inherently harmful, lack of regulation in their quantity usually results in adverse reactions.
There have been situations where some black women use natural remedies because of claims in some quarters that the natural meals they consume daily contain nutrients beneficial to the skin when applied directly. Food items such as egg yolk, papaya, tomatoes, and avocado, are usually the victims of this abuse.
There has also been a rise in the number of ‘organic’ skincare professionals on social media who claim their products are effective, have no side effects, and give healthy skin. They sometimes do a video to convince potential and existing customers that the products have natural compositions.
Rather than the word bleaching, the skincare gurus use euphemistic words like ‘skin brightening,’ ‘lightening,’ and ‘treatment’.
In recent times, there has been a rise in the advertisements of skin-bleaching agents administered by self-proclaimed professional medical practitioners. One such is the Glutathione IV therapy which promotes the passing of glutathione into the bloodstream intravenously. The glutathione is sometimes infused with other substances, such as Vitamin C and Collagen.
The sponsors of these ads, particularly on TikTok, often claim that there are no side effects to using the Glutathione IV though medical research has suggested otherwise. Some of these posts are seen on TikTok here, here, here, here and here.
What is Glutathione?
According to a WebMD report, Glutathione is an antioxidant made from glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid. It is produced by the liver and is involved in tissue building and repair. The substance also makes chemicals and proteins needed in the body and in immune system function.
Healthline reported other benefits of glutathione, including: reducing oxidative stress, improving psoriasis, and reducing cell damage in alcoholic and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. It also improves insulin resistance in older individuals, helps mobility for people with peripheral artery disease, and reduces symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
A report from the National Institutes of Health identified the protective action of glutathione against exacerbated inflammation triggered by COVID-19, though it called for further clinical studies to investigate the issue.
However, Healthline noted that glutathione levels in the body might be reduced due to poor nutrition, environmental toxins, stress and ageing. Thus it can be directly administered. Administration can be done orally, topically, intravenously, intranasally, or nebulised.
This report is primarily on the use of Glutathione IV (Intravenous) Therapy which is the passage of the drug into or within a vein. The National Cancer Institute defines the word ‘intravenous’ as giving a drug or other substance through a needle or tube inserted into a vein.
Several scientific papers have established the benefits of glutathione in treating some chronic medical conditions, as earlier highlighted. However, there have been concerns regarding using glutathione IV therapy for skin lightening.
In a report by Olivia Clinic, serious side effects such as kidney failure or blood poisoning can occur when the dosage is much higher than what is required. Other effects mentioned in the report are nausea; skin rashes; hives or allergic reactions; diarrhoea; hair loss; breathing problems; Steven Johnson’s syndrome; breast pain; and eye disorder.
Another study in the National Library of Medicine raised concerns about the risk of developing skin cancers owing to the effect of glutathione on melanin production.
Recently, the Philippine Dermatological Society issued a disclaimer warning against the unprofessional use of the substance as a skin whitener. The association noted that serious health complications may arise due to fake, unadulterated or contaminated glutathione products.
In 2019, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) documented adverse events in seven patients who received intravenous injections containing L-glutathione 200mg/mL compounded by a pharmacy using L-glutathione.
Each patient was administered 7mL (1,400mg) of L-glutathione by injection on January 9, 2019. Within minutes of the infusion, the patients reportedly experienced nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, chills, body aches and sneezing.
Meanwhile, FDA’s findings showed that the L-glutathione was meant for use in dietary supplements, not sterile drugs. Further investigation revealed that the dosage of the L-glutathione administered to the patients contained excessive bacterial endotoxin, with some results as high as five times the appropriate limit.
In the same year, the FDA Philippines warned against using glutathione IV therapy, noting that there are no published guidelines for appropriate dosage. It further stated that FDA Philippines approved injectable glutathione as an adjunct treatment in cisplatin chemotherapy, not for skin whitening purposes.
It said, “Side effects on injectable glutathione for skin lightening include toxic effects on the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Also of concern is the possibility of Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.
“Injectable glutathione is sometimes paired with intravenous Vitamin C. The injection may form kidney stones if the urine is acidic. Large doses of Vitamin C have resulted in hemodialysis in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency.”
The body further stated that glutathione affects melanin production, highlighting the long-term risk of skin cancer.
Other potential risks are HIV, hepatitis C and B, mainly when non-medical practitioners administer the treatment or when it is done in a non-sterile facility, the body said.
Also, in 2021, Ghana’s Food and Drug Authority (FDA) warned citizens against using glutathione products for skin lightening, noting the risks attached.
In the same vein, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) had, in January 2019, warned Nigerians against using chemicals to lighten the skin, highlighting risks of cancer and kidney malfunction.
The director general of the agency, Mojisola Adeyeye, had said the agency seized about four trucks of glutathione because it could cause skin cancer, kidney dysfunction, and failure.
“There are many people involved in these whitening chemicals, from glutathione injection to the tablets and other such chemicals,” she had said. “We are concerned about glutathione because it can cause skin cancer as well as kidney dysfunction and failure; this is what people do not know.”
In September 2022, Ms Adeyeye issued another warning that the abusive use of cosmetics could lead to internal damage to body organs and even death.
She said many beauticians are engaged in formulating unauthorised chemicals with the support of some clinics with medical doctors to administer the same to clients. One such is the infusion of Vitamin C and glutathione.
While the NAFDAC boss explained that the agency is not against cosmetics, she said most of the products used in the mixture were smuggled into the country and unregistered. Some chemicals were applied in quantities above their permissible substance limits.
According to her, all these products with substances above their permissible limits are at risk of causing harm, and it is for the same safety reason that mercury is banned in cosmetics.
The claim by adverts that Glutathione IV skincare therapy has no side effects is misleading. Studies and regulatory bodies have confirmed there is a danger to people for unregulated use of the product.