Ten Reasons Why Skin Whitening Products Are Shady AF

Following recent reports that some cosmetic companies are removing the word "whitening" from their skin products, we republish Nadia Craddock's excellent 2017 critique of this market.

Skin whitening is a global phenomenon and according to market research, is one of the fastest growing segments of the global beauty industry, expected to be worth $31.2 billion by 2024. Notably, the practice of skin whitening is most prevalent across the Global South in places where slavery, colonialism, racism and colourism are deeply imbedded in societal values and beliefs. For example, in India, Japan, and Thailand, skin whitening products account for more than 60% of each country’s respective skin care market. According to the World Health Organisation, more than one-quarter (and up to 77%) of women in Japan, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, China, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and India report to regularly using skin whitening products.

Skin whitening products and their associated marketing communications are hugely problematic on so many levels. Yet, regulation and policy is patchy at best. Moreover, resources and research aimed at raising awareness and developing intervention and prevention initiatives is acutely lacking.

Let’s start with the products themselves:
  1. Skin whitening products often contain highly toxic ingredients including hydroquinone, bleach and mercury. Yes, you read that right – mercury, the chemical that has been phased out of batteries, thermometers and barometers because it is deemed too dangerous. And yet, skin care manufactures are putting it in creams to be directly applied to human skin. The original use of hydroquinone incidentally is as a central component in the development and printing of black and white film. And I don’t need to tell you that bleach is best known as a cleaning and disinfectant product, useful for killing bacteria in toilets and removing persistent stains from clothes.
  2. Unsurprisingly therefore, even the occasional use of skin whitening creams is harmful and can lead to scarring, blistering and infections. Ouch.
  3.  Depending on the exact chemicals used, the regular use of skin whitening creams can result in increased risk for skin cancer, high blood pressure, anxiety, diabetes, neurological and kidney problems. Consequently, women around the world are severely risking their health in the pursuit of lighter skin.
  4.  As well as an extensive range of skin whitening products for designated body parts such as the face, underarms or feet, there are numerous products on the market designed to lighten and whiten your vagina and ‘other intimate areas’.
  5. Now this is particularly egregious. Due to its toxicity and carcinogenic properties, the sale of skin whitening products containing hydroquinone is banned in many high-income countries, including the United States, Australia, and the European Union. This sounds promising, BUT, their manufacture is still legal. So, what happens is this: (some) Western companies continue produce toxic skin-bleaching products on wealthy Western soil where the sale of these products are illegal. These companies then proceed to sell these toxic products to markets across the global south where demand is high and there is no regulation.
If the above five points are not disturbing enough, prepare yourself to consider how skin whitening products are marketed.
  1. The story is always the same. The skin whitening product dramatically alters the fate of the sad, lonely, unsuccessful, dark skinned girl. After a few weeks of using the product, her skin is many shades lighter and her life is transformed: she gets the job / the boyfriend, her parents are now proud of her, she’s happy, successful, popular.  Not only does this type of messaging reinforce the ideal of fair skin as a standard for beauty, it inevitably serves to reinforce stereotypes rooted in racism and colourism that in turn are linked to discretionary practices.
  2. Often, the illustrated transformation from dark to light skin is completely unrealistic. Yet, regulation for false advertising is limited or non-existent in many of the regions these products are being most heavily marketed to.
  3. Relatedly, the copy linked to skin whitening products include words like ‘pure’, ‘fresh’, and ‘flawless’, and phrases like “perfect white: your dreams can come true”. Again, value is placed on white(r) skin, perpetuating a hierarchical system based on skin colour.
  4. Additionally, skin whitening adverts often employ Caucasian or biracial models to promote their product regardless of where in the world the ad is placed. Where Caucasian or biracial models are not used, advertisers are not averse to digitally lightening a model’s skin. Consequently, the model is inevitability lighter skinned than the large majority of the adverts’ target audience, creating an impossible ideal for consumers. Incidentally, the same large global companies (see Loreal, Clinque, Procter & Gamble, Unilever) that sell tanning products in the West sell skin-whitening products elsewhere in the world.
  5. Finally, large multinational companies are targeting some of the most deprived populations in the world. It is possible to buy small sachets of skin whitening product in the slums of India, Nigeria, and Brazil – countries where the social and economic disparities between the lightest and darkest members of the population are profound.
Seems pretty bleak, right? Fortunately, there’s some evidence of light in the form of advocacy campaigns opposing the global discourse on skin tone ideals (see the Dark Is Beautiful movement -http://www.darkisbeautiful.in, the Unfair and Lovely movement - http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35783348 and articles from the Mocha Girl Pit Stop http://mochagirlspitstop.com/proud-of-your-melanin). Some of these advocacy efforts have successfully resulted in the removal of some of the most problematic skin-lightening campaign ads from circulation. Many also lead community self-esteem campaigns. However, much more needs to be done to bring the issue of skin whitening out of the shade, starting with the regulation of both the toxic products and their problematic marketing campaigns.

To find out more on this topic listen to the Centre for Appearance’s podcast episode 17 ‘the colour of beauty’, where Nadia and Jade look at the juxtaposition between the practice of tanning and skin-lightening and examine why people go to great efforts to change the colour of their skin. You can listen it, as well as past episodes on iTunes  - Soundcloud - Acast

Nadia Craddock is an applied body image researcher at the Centre for Appearance Research(CAR). She produces and co-hosts CAR's podcast, Appearance Matters, which covers all topics related to appearance and body image research.


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