Is This Finally the End of Skin Whitening?

Benson believes she didn’t end up using these products because her family encouraged her to love her skin. But for every Anita Benson, there are many more who have been haggled by aunties to “tone” their skin.

The proliferation of lightening products has not only fed a cycle of unattainable beauty standards, it has also presented real physical dangers. In Benson’s practice, she sees patients who’ve suffered from skin infections, body odor, and thinning of the skin from using bleaching creams. Such products can include mercury, which is known to cause kidney damage, according to the World Health Organization, or hydroquinone, another popular yet controversial lightening ingredient. In 2006, the FDA proposed a rule that would establish over-the-counter skin-lightening products as “not generally recognized as safe and effective,” flagging them as potentially carcinogenic. Still, hydroquinone is considered by many dermatologists to be an effective agent in treating hyperpigmentation. The European Union, Canada, the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda have banned cosmetics containing mercury. Rwanda, Japan, and Australia have banned skin-lightening products that contain hydroquinone. But in some of these countries, there is still a thriving black market where products containing these ingredients are easy to find.

Newer lightening options on the market are branded as “organic,” tapping into consumers’ desire for clean products. And innovations like IV drips of glutathione, a naturally occurring antioxidant that lightens skin by halting the tyrosinase enzyme that helps produce melanin, promise a “safer” way to get a lighter complexion. In 2018, however, the FDA administered a warning against injectable skin lighteners, including those that contain glutathione, stating that any products claiming to lighten skin were “potentially unsafe and ineffective, and might contain unknown harmful ingredients or contaminants” — so they aren’t a problem-free alternative.

The high demand for these creams, despite their possibly dangerous side effects, is rooted in a racial stratification that goes back to colonialism, when adjacency to white colonizers had real benefits. Lighter-skinned enslaved persons were more likely to work inside the home instead of out in the fields, and those with fair-enough skin could pass as white in a society where “colored” was a synonym for “inferior.” These power dynamics have had long-term effects on who is considered beautiful and attractive by white people and people of color. In Benson’s experience, those who turn to skin-lightening products in Nigeria are often young children whose parents use creams on them to prevent future ridicule or bullying, and adults who have been turned away from jobs based on their skin color.

Sadly, this fear is rooted in facts. A 2018 study published in Plos One tracked the earnings of more than 4,000 subjects, taking into account their skin tone. The study found that those with the darkest skin were projected to earn over half a million dollars less in their lifetime than their fairest colleagues.

Some makers of skin-lightening products sell the message that fairer skin leads to a better life, even if the products are formulated to even skin tone, not necessarily whiten. “Fair & Lovely is notoriously known for ads where the dark girl is not getting a job or married, and then, all of a sudden, she uses the product and there she is with a career and husband and everything you could want,” says Nina Davuluri, the first Indian American to win Miss America, in 2014, and producer and host of a documentary on colorism, COMPLEXion. Current ads are a little subtler, but they still show women smiling a few shades lighter after applying creams. “They’re selling this pervasive, toxic ideology that this is their golden ticket to [a better] life, which is not the case.” In a statement to Allure, a spokesperson for Unilever (the maker of Fair & Lovely) said, “We know that there is a lot of historic advertising available on the internet. These ads are not aligned with the values of the brand today.”

Enacting Change

“Black Lives Matter sparked this entire discussion of how we can be antiracist within our communities,” says Davuluri. For many companies, that meant donating to organizations like the NAACP and writing letters of support. For Davuluri, that meant speaking out against whitening creams. “You can’t say that Black lives matter in one part of the world and actively promote a skin-whitening product in another part of the world,” she says.

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