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.
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.
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.
- In Africa, Being Black is NOT Seen as Being Beautiful: White Skin is In (eurweb.com)
- Rise in Skin Bleaching in Africa Leads to Increased Health Risks (politic365.com)
- A Skin Bleaching Epidemic in Africa and Its Diaspora (atlantablackstar.com)
- Q&A: What’s the mask of pregnancy? | BabyZone (babyzone.com)
- How to Lighten Dark Skin Naturally (dailyglow.com)
- One woman in three Black women bleaches her skin… (ukzambians.co.uk)
- How to Lighten Dark Underarms (dailyglow.com)
- How to Lighten Darkened Skin (dailyglow.com)
- In Some Parts of Africa, Black Is Not Beautiful (clutchmagonline.com)
- Vaseline’s Facebook app let’s male users in India see how they’d look with lighter skin (daveibsen.typepad.com)