What could have made Sammy Sosa’s skin lighter?

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Left, Sonia and Sammy Sosa in May 2009, George Napolitano/Getty; Right, November 2009, Rodrigo Varela/Getty

Ever since he appeared at the Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas last week, photos of former baseball slugger Sammy Sosa’s markedly lighter visage have been bouncing around the internet, as everyone from baseball fans and sports commentators to dermatologists and cultural analysts scratched their heads about what might have caused the dramatic dip in pigmentation. On the Chicago Tribune’s Exploring Race blog, Dawn Turner Trice writes, “The reason Sosa is in the spotlight is because he appears to be yet another brown person unhappy in his skin. He says that’s not true. But in the photos, Sosa’s eyes appear lighter and his hair straighter. It does make you wonder….” Meanwhile, some speculated that his lighter skin color was a result of years of steroid use, which, it was revealed earlier this year, he tested positive for in 2003.

Yet while his dramatically different appearance has raised numerous questions, the explanation offered by Rebecca Polihronis—a former employee of the Chicago Cubs, where Sosa played from 1992–2004, who told the Tribune that his lighter complexion was an unexpected side effect of a “skin rejuvenation” treatment, and that he was “surprised he came out looking so white”—left at least one expert shaking her head. Dr. Jonith Breadon, a practicing dermatologist in Chicago and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, believes that explanation for Sosa’s changed skin tone is disingenuous. “I wish they hadn’t lied and said that,” she says. The likelihood that a skin rejuvenation procedure—such as a chemical peel or laser treatment—would have accidentally lightened his skin evenly across his entire face is wildly unlikely, she says. “There can be accidental or unwanted effects of these treatments,” she says, “but it isn’t uniform.” What’s more, in patients with darker skin to begin with, accidental side effects of rejuvenation procedures would be more likely to result in darker patches of skin, not lighter.

Of course, without examining Sosa in person Breadon says she can’t offer any definitive diagnosis or explanation, but, she says, it’s unlikely that his change in pigmentation would have been caused by androgens (or anabolic steroids), the variety preferred by those looking to boost athletic performance. While she has seen patients suffering from side effects of corticosteroid creams they acquired overseas for the purpose of lightening their skin, it’s unlikely Sosa would have been applying any topical creams to boost his home run tally.

Instead, Breadon speculates, the more likely scenario is that Sosa may have been trying to even his skin tone, combating acne scars, for example, using a topical medication called hydroquinone. The treatment temporarily targets pigment cells, and can be used to smooth skin tone or minimize darker acne scars, Breadon explains. If anabolic steroids played any role in Sosa’s lighter skin tone, it may have been by causing acne in the first place, which he might have been trying to reduce using this temporary skin-lightening treatment, Breadon speculates. “If he had problems like acne scars that may have left his skin dark [in patches],” she say, “he may have been trying to lighten the dark spots and in doing so may have lightened everything all at once.” For treatments intended to create more permanent skin whitening—such as those likely used by Michael Jackson to smooth his skin tone’s unevenness apparently due to the condition Vitiligo—Breadon says dermatologists will generally prescribe monobenzylether of hydroquinone. “It’s toxic specifically to the pigment cells,” she says.

While it could simply have been an attempt to clear up acne scars, Sosa’s nebulous explanation for his lighter skin suggests that other, possible self-esteem or social pressures could be at play, Breadon says. “Why would he do this?” she asks. Drawing from the experience of her own practice, she says that, every now and then a patient comes to her requesting powerful lightening creams solely for the purpose of whitening their skin. “Patients, who for whatever reason feel that the world is more receptive to lighter skin, have asked me to prescribe the bleaching creams so that they can get lighter,” she says, recalling more than a few fashion models who told her that lighter skin would enable them to get more work. “I’d never give that treatment to someone who didn’t have a disease or condition,” she says, and for those whom she does prescribe the treatment, she always recommends counseling as well—adjusting to a new skin color is not only a physical process, she says, but can also be an emotional one.