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Why Skin-Lightening Creams Are Toxic For the Black Community

Beauty Brands Need to Stop Selling Skin-Lightening Products as a Black Skin Solution

Unrecognizable black woman massages lotion into hands

We're tired of our dark skin not being considered worthy and beautiful.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Eurocentric ideals of beauty have been brought to the world's attention. One aspect of which is the toxic — both in the mental and physical sense — category of skin lightening and bleaching. "The skin-lightening industry is one of the most insidious forms of racial oppression alive today," explained Kemi Fabusiwa, a medical doctor and aesthetician. "It enforces beauty ideals that were built upon a painful colonial past and endorses a narrative that lighter skin equates to a greater beauty."

Recently, many beauty companies and brands have faced severe backlash and criticism for the production and packing of skin-lightening and bleaching creams, which they've been allowed to continue offering to the public for decades. To understand the severity of this injustice and address the need for change, however, it is important to unpack the problematic roots behind skin bleaching, where it all started, and the psychological effects it has on Black and Brown communities as we move toward a more equal future.

Colorism Is the Daughter of Racism

If we are to understand the complete magnitude of skin lightening, we have to step back and understand the gravity behind colorism and the caste system. Colorism is the discrimination against dark-skinned people in favor of those with lighter skin tones from the same race or ethnic group. Rooted in centuries of both Black and Asian history, colorism was used as a way to segregate, carve out class systems, and validate inhumane treatment.

For the Black community, colorism goes as a far back as enslavement, as it was used as a tool for white slave owners to show preferential treatment to lighter-skinned or mixed raced enslaved peoples over darker-skinned ones. Today, this preference for lighter-skinned Black women persists, and contributes to a warped concept of beauty that has nestled itself in both an intra-racial and inter-racial setting amongst the Black community. Darker skin is often viewed by other races as "less than," and this has seeped into Black history where darker complexions are considered less attractive and are exposed to more experiences of prejudice.

This preference for lighter-skinned Black women persists, and contributes to a warped concept of beauty that has nestled itself in both an intra-racial and inter-racial setting amongst the Black community.
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In India, colorism has weaved its way into society through the caste system. Originally, the caste system was used as a four-fold categorical hierarchy within religion. During the 20th century, however, this was redefined and institutionalized through colonial expansion. When British anthropologists began conducting ethnographic research in India, they found ways to defend the country's caste system through a variety of ways, including censuses and "scientific" analysis that they believed proved there were biological differences between members of difference castes. While completely bogus, the pseudoscience helped the colonists to align the Indian elite with being Aryan in origin (Indo-European background), and categorize the lower classes as foragers and pastoralists, thus supporting a hierarchical dividing of Indian society. As this theory developed, certain jobs were specifically assigned to certain castes; the British attempted to elevate members of the lighter-skinned elite into positions of power, while members of the lowest castes often working outside, their skin constantly exposed to the beating sun. All of this eventually led both the colonizers and colonized to associate the different classes with skin color. Based on appearance only, members of society were then able to align skin tone with wealth and status, pushing forth the notion that dark skin was considered to be less worthy and less beautiful.

This "fair entitlement" and light-skinned privilege is still prevalent in society today, with many artists, models, and actors facing discrimination against the tone of their skin, especially if they have deeper complexions. Take for example Lupita Nyong'o, who has openly spoken about her experience when facing colorism: how audition after audition she was considered "too dark" for roles. And as colorism is the "daughter of racism," it opens up the conversation to "a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin."

These psychological setbacks then open up the narrative for skin bleaching and skin lightening. By altering the shade of your skin (regardless of the health implications) and moulding to Euro-centric beauty ideals, skin lightening is a way of trying to be accepted and be deemed more desirable. It sets a precursor for the negative impact that bleaching and lightening products have in beauty today.

Toxic Products and Dangerous Ingredients

Colorism pushed its way into the DNA of the beauty industry, resulting in a category of "lightening" or "bleaching" products that promise to lighten one's natural skin tone. Over the past century, the category grew exponentially around the world. And with thousands of stores across the world selling and promoting skin lightening products, it is no wonder the skin bleaching industry is estimated to be worth over $8.9 million by 2024, with a 6.8 percent growth between 2018 and 2024. While many of these products are unregulated and illegal, there are big companies such as Unilever who are still producing in countries like India (accounting to $500 million in revenue) off the bleaching industry.

Besides the blatant colorism and racism underlying the entire existence of the category, the products themselves have largely been regarded as dangerous by a 2019 World Health Organization report that highlights hazardous health ingredients. "Mercury is commonly used in illegal skin lightening products: it is poison to the human body as it accumulates and causes long term damage to the kidneys, liver, and brain", explained Amiee Vyas, director of Doctor Amiee Facial Aesthetics and Skin, and one of the founding members of the Black Aesthetics Advisory Board. "Hydroquinone structurally disrupts the epidermis, resulting in a reduction of skin thickness and integrity. It can also lead to a blue-ish discoloration of the skin called 'ochronosis' and long-term, unregulated use is associated with liver and nerve damage."

The selling and marketing of skin-lightening products also has psychological repercussions for the BIPOC community. "The skin-lightening industry is problematic because of the implications on mental health, and also for the medical dangers it poses," said Dr. Vyas. "Feeling unattractive leads to anxiety, low self-worth, and depression. In many cultures there is an added pressure to be light-skinned in order to attain success or to be marriageable. Products that prey on these factors feed the damaging narrative that light skin is more worthy." This was an issue that was raised in the Netflix documentary Skin, which was witness to the mental and physical abuse skin-lightening products have on women in Nigeria alone.

Regardless of the effects, bleaching products are still being targeted to the Black and Asian communities as a way to lighten their skin, albeit with different names. In recent events, Unilever has agreed to remove "fair" from their Fair & Lovely lightening products sold in India, changing the name to Glow & Lovely and ensuring it removes any branding that suggests any racial stereotyping with their skin-whitening creams (by removing the words fair/fairness, white/whitening, and light/lightening). Similarly, L'Oréal has announced it will remove words referring to "white," "fair," and "light" from its "skin-evening products."

Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, has stated it will be retreating from its skin-whitening business, which includes the Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear & Clean Fairness ranges. "We will no longer produce or ship the product line," the company told the New York Times, explaining that its website was being updated to remove links to both products, which may still appear on shelves "for a short while."

A Necessary Shift in Perspective

While there are a decreasing number of people today still drawing on skin lightening — something accelerated by social media — accepting our different shades of blackness is still a relevant topic. YouTuber and beauty Influencer, Jackie Aina, recently addressed the negative comments she received on a bikini video she posted to Instagram — comments that called out the darker shades on her body and recommended products that would help to even and lighten areas of her skin. "It was strange to me that you saw a video of me having fun, being carefree, living my best life, and your knee-jerk reaction was to suggest ways on how to even out my complexion and lighten parts of my body," Aina said in the video. "There are two things that will never be up for discussion: my hair and my complexion. Unless I ask, don't criticize my hair. Unless I ask, don't criticize my complexion. General rule of thumb, if I don't ask, the suggestion isn't welcome."

"Widespread mainstream education to wipe out colourism within Black and ethnic populations is also key to change perceptions of privilege in communities".

Although Aina is talking about negative comments in general, the idea behind people calling out her darker areas, and suggesting this is something she should be concerned about, pays tribute to the fact that, for many, lightening and bleaching is still considered an option for altering the skin's natural tone. Working to try to change this perception — among many other topics — is the recently founded Black Aesthetics Advisory Board, which is an expert-led group in the UK, founded by Dr. Vyas, Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme, Dr. Tijion Esho, and Dija Ayodele, with the aim to drive purposeful change among aesthetics regarding Black and minority ethnic patients, as well as tailoring their experience with practitioners through correct representation.

What we should be doing moving forward is being able to embrace our natural skin color and brush off the stigma and cultural complexity that has been shackled to our community for decades. "Widespread mainstream education to wipe out colorism within Black and ethnic populations is also key to change perceptions of privilege in communities," Dr. Vyas said. "Opening up the conversation is important, as many people within ethnic communities are unaware of the roots of the belief that 'lighter is more powerful.' This, coupled with education of the dangers of the skin lightening agents, will bring much needed progress and safeguard those considering skin lightening treatments."

Skin bleaching or lightening is not a Black skin solution for the market to tailor its products to. In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the shock that has rippled through the world, methods, markets, and perceptions have to change. Embracing skin tone regardless of where it sits on the spectrum is vital for complexion acceptance and the art of moving forward.

Image Source: Getty / Grace Cary
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