Dying to be Lighter: The Cultural and Physical Dangers of Skin Lightening

Dying to be Lighter: The Cultural and Physical Dangers of Skin Lightening

Dying to be Lighter: The Physical and Cultural Dangers of Skin Lightening

(Mario Vitanelli is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in the analysis of influential people and organizations, global business trends and international affairs. When away from his keyboard, he enjoys photography and appreciates the rest of the Vitanelli family’s endless patience with his football preoccupation.)

It’s probably a comment on the innate discontent accompanying the human condition that a huge number of people the world over seem to be unhappy with the way they look- their skin tone in particular. Fairer skinned women and men in Western nations keep the tanning industry a lucrative trade in an effort to get darker. Very lucrative- although the global price tag for tanning and tanning products is far higher, each year Americans spend more than $5 billion on indoor tanning alone. That tremendous sum, however, is half what our planet’s darker-skinned residents spend annually on skin lightening treatments.Black & White dream ...

Not that a market for skin lightening treatments don’t exist in Western states like the US and the UK. A high-profile example is Michael Jackson, whose famous denial of any skin lightening regiment was proved untrue by the lightening creams found among his possessions after he died. However, the great majority of lightening products are sold throughout over Asia, Africa, India and the Middle East. In India 60% of women use skin lightening salves every day; in Togo 59%; in Nigeria 92% of the men and women attending a skin health conference admitted to attempting skin lightening. Comparable percentages can be found in an alarming number of nation states peopled by darker-hued citizens. In many African and Asian nations skin-bleaching solutions outsell any other class of beauty product. In India, they’re the most popular by a 2/3 margin.

While trends like this are always informed by complex socio-cultural factors, the popularity of dermal-bleaching is generally considered to be the result of two influences.

The first is the legacy of Western colonial occupation creating a dynamic in which the wealthier citizens were virtually always lighter skinned (or at least it engendered that perception). The second is the increasingly ubiquitous presence of Western advertising, many examples of which feature blonde, fair actresses and models. This creeping encroachment of occidental beauty ideals has been a tremendous source of frustration for feminists and activists working to convince their fellow countrywomen that darker skin is not an undesirable trait.


Controversy recently polarized much of Senegal after adverts for a skin lightener (called Khess Petch, the translation of which is “All White”) displaying a before-and-after image of a black woman lightened several tones. A similar backlash in India was precipitated by TV adverts for a product meant to lighten a woman’s bikini region.

English: Michael Jackson at the Cannes film fe...

English: Michael Jackson at the Cannes film festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the ad, a fair-skinned Indian woman looks forlorn because her husband is distant and uninterested. After she applies the cream in the shower, however, the couple joyously embraces- his interest reignited. Unfortunately, in places like India, the assumption on the part of women (and many men) that being fairer skinned will result in greater success is often culturally reinforced. Many beautiful dark-skinned models and actresses leave India to seek work in the West as lighter-toned women get the great majority of work at home.

Beyond the troubling implications of the skin-lightening trend in ethnic/cultural terms are the myriad health implications. Because many of these creams are sold in countries without a public health apparatus capable of comprehensive beauty product inspection, many creams include mercury despite the UK’s banning its topical use in 1978. Mercury is an incredibly toxic chemical that builds up in body tissue leading to a host of problems, the worst of which include severe renal and brain damage, and death. Creams without mercury often contain hydroquinone- another dangerous chemical that accumulates in the system (and was similarly outlawed by the British).

Hydroquinone is caustic enough to break up melanin in the skin (it’s used in photo development) and is a proven carcinogen, can permanently cause black and blue splotching and is very possibly a neurotoxin.

Doctors in areas where use of bleaching creams is common routinely treat patients with bad dizziness, fatigue, almost total lack of cortisol in their systems (which can cause psychological problems), swollen hands and abdomens, and diabetes. Even if users are lucky enough to use a cream that lightens the skin without (more) toxic chemicals, lightening skin leads to a greatly increased risk of skin cancer and leathery skin when older.

Superficial but (physically) benign changes can include blotchy patterns and concentrations of melanin (which gives skin pigmentation) in the joints of fingers and toes, ears and buttocks. As such, use of skin bleaching treatments is culturally unhealthy and can lead to unsightly physical changes at best and debilitating illness, both physical and mental, and death at worst. Since these creams are widely available on the internet, the best hope for doing away with skin lightening procedures and products is education and an affirmation of someone’s beauty no matter what their skin tone.

Guest Columnist: Shakurah



Meditation (Photo credit: atsukosmith)

For Black Women: A Healing Meditation

By Shakurah


You do not have to spend much time in the internet world today to see an abundance of negative en

ergy directed towards black women. Our identity as a whole has taken such a beating in this culture.


Black skin is what people of other backgrounds first see and it is how we are judged. Black people also judge other Black people negatively and harshly, often on the basis of lighter or darker skin tone.


Our skin is a living part of us that has been unfairly burdened with negative messages. We as black women have taken countless emotional blows for looking how we look, for being who we are.


If we do not take care and find ways to shield ourselves, many of these negative messages can seep into our consciousness without us being aware of it, causing damage to our spirits. All of us have areas to improve in, but the commentary on black women is often downright brutal.


As a black woman, think it is time to focus on some healing balms and antidotes to all of this negativity.


I dedicate this meditation to black women who need love, too.


You may read it to yourself or have a loving, supportive person read it to you.


If you like, have a bottle of your favorite lotions or oils nearby for this meditation.


May it be a soothing balm to your soul and a reminder of your Goodness.




Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit and settle in, preparing yourself for this meditation. If you wish to change your posture, (to laying down, for example) at any point during this meditation, you are free to do so.


First, we will bring the energy of relaxation into the mind, emotions, and body.


Take a slow, deep breath in… and out…, relaxing your neck and shoulders. Do this as many times as yo

u need to start to unwind from your day. Let the relaxation spread throughout your body, like flowing water.


As you sit, notice the state of your mind without judgment. What emotions are you feeling? How is your body feeling?


Pause for several moments to experience this.


Whatever you find, gently send yourself the message, “It is ok to relax. It’s ok to relax.”


Say gently to your mind, “It is ok to relax.” Say lovingly to your emotions, “It’s ok to relax.” Say to any hurt, tight, or tense area of your body, “It’s ok to relax.”


This is my time now and it’s ok to relax.”


Give yourself permission to relax to the best of your ability at this time, remembering to breathe in and

out at a slow, gentle pace.


Now, gently and lovingly, bring your attention to your skin. This is the beautiful, rich skin that was passed on to you by your ancestors.


With gratitude, we thank our ancestors for our skin.


Connect with your own skin. (At this time, use your lotions or oils if you like). Your dark skin needs your love and care. We see our skin every waking moment-how often do we really connect with it? Spend time embracing and loving the darkness of your own skin.


Take a moment to caress and touch the beautiful, dark skin of your face, hands, arms and legs and feet. Send your gratitude, love, and appreciation into your skin with each touch.


“My black skin, I am grateful for you and I love, value and appreciate you.”


Notice how your skin responds to your love. Send healing love and compassion into your skin. Your bla

ck skin has feelings too. Your skin deserves this love.


Take your time.


As you go inside of yourself, in this meditative state, notice if your skin has any messages for you. How

is your skin feeling? How does it feel about living in the culture it lives in? Listen deeply within to what your skin has to say to you.


“Black skin, what do you have to say to me? I am ready to listen.” Listening to your skin may help you uncover wounds that need healing. Listen, and get to know yourself on a new level.


Take a few moments to listen within now.


This is the time to show your skin that you love and appreciate it. Tell your skin how much you appreciate it for all it has done for you. Give your skin the loving care and acceptance it needs.


This is the biologically brilliant skin that protects us from harmful UV rays from the sun.


“My black skin, I thank you. “


This is the skin that protects the internal structure of our bodies.


“My black skin, I love you.”


This is the skin of the Mother of Humanity.


“My black skin, I thank you.”


Affirm the Goodness of your skin. Know that it is good. It is a part of you that you can have a good relationship with. Remind your skin of its innocence.


As you caress your skin, repeat to yourself:


“My black skin, you are Good and Innocent. You are Good and Innocent.” Say it silently o

r out loud a

s many times as it feels good to say.


See how your skin responds to this.


Our skin is the gateway to our Spirit and Soul. Contemplative reflection on the Beauty and Sacred Nature of our skin can connect us to our inner Self and inner voice that must be heard.


How does it feel for you being a black woman, living in your skin? What burdens might you be carrying, because of other’s perceptions of your black skin?


Enter into a dialogue with your skin and find out how your skin can assist you in healing.


Take some time to contemplate this. Take time to be aware and heal.


“My black skin, I love you.” Know that there is strength and power emanating from your skin. Allow yourself to be enveloped in this strength and power as you face the world.


You may stay in this meditative state, communing with your lovely black skin as long as you like.


When you are complete with the meditation for now, stretch gently in any way that feels good to help you transition to the rest of your day. Breathe softly and slowly. Come back to this place often to surround your skin and your entire being with the Love you so richly deserve.


**If you received messages from your skin during this meditation, it may be a healing practice to write in a journal any messages you may wish to revisit or explore more deeply. If you received any messages from your skin that you would like to share, please feel free to post them in the comments section.