The Impact of Skin Bleaching & Colorism in the Beauty Industry

Skin Bleaching is Booming in Beauty, But at What Cost to Consumer Wellness and Safety?

If you are a person of color, you may have heard and lived the experience of colorism, the practice of favoring lighter skin over darker skin within groups of people of the same race or ethnic background. While colorism occurs within the dynamics of people who share background, this without question is a racial and classist issue—one that is highly profitable around the world for the beauty industry.

Colorism is a long-standing social matter that is loud and in our faces, but seems to fizzle in conversation. The desire to be lighter skinned is big business in the beauty industry and if there’s one thing we know about capitalism, it's that if it makes money, it makes sense—even at the expense of further marginalizing groups that are impacted, and in this case it’s those of darker skin tones. Skin bleaching or skin whitening products are high sellers everywhere, but the ingredients and the beauty standard attached to them are dangerous.


The History of Skin Whitening

Skin bleaching (or skin whitening / skin lightening) is the practice of using chemical substances in an attempt to lighten the skin or provide an even skin color by reducing the melanin concentration in the skin. It has been around for centuries and can be traced back to the impacts of colonialism throughout the world and have had an impact in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. 

Documented as originating in Europe and used by the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra, skin bleaching/whitening eventually developed into an association between light skin, beauty, wealth and social status. It wasn't until the 18 - 1900s that companies began to play into this association by advertising these skin lightening products as a way to achieve social status, wealth, and the "ultimate beauty standard" of white skin. 


The Risks of Skin Bleaching

Dove, Nivea, L’Oréal and Ponds are known in U.S markets for their strong messages in skin positivity, but if we touch down in Asia or Africa, you’ll discover these brands use media and advertising to play on desirability politics within these regions to sell toxic products. When it comes to the skin lightening market there are several bleaching chemicals used in products and procedures to get the job done.

1) Hydroquinone is a skin bleaching substance that works through depigmenting the skin. It causes rashes, redness and overtime can discolor and thin out the skin. Places like Japan, Europe, several African countries, and Australia all have prohibited use of the drug in cosmetic products. And as of September 2020, the U.S has banned all the Over the Counter products through the CARES Act. Hydroquinone has been on the market for decades—marketed solely to fade dark blemishes and hyperpigmentation, but the long-term reactions are not worth the results.

2) Glutathione IV, also known as Cinderella Drip, is big business in the Philippines. Clinics throughout the country inject their customers with Glutathione to promote skin whitening. Dr. Vicki Belo founder and dermatologist at the Belo Medical group takes regular clients for the procedure—her most popular practice. The irony is that the IV drip is discouraged by the FDA. Kidney failure, liver infection and thyroid issues have all been reported.

3) Mercury is a popular chemical used in the skin-lightening black market. Mercury was banned in 1990 by the FDA for use in skin bleaching products but is still in demand and sold by independent vendors in Asia and Africa. In these countries, some products that can be found on the shelves in beauty stores may contain mercury at a concentration several thousand above the legal limit. Long-term use of this substance leads to kidney damage, tremors, birth defects and severe skin discoloration called Ochronosis—a condition where the skin turns a blue-grey color.

While some of the big brands, like Dove and L'Oreal have made minor changes to this overall side of the industry that include removing certain lines of product, or adjusting marketing claims, it hasn't stopped the use of these products entirely. Countries that have a ban on these types of products face the problem of smuggling and illegal importation of potentially harmful, unregulated, counterfeit products. Since people in some of these countries cannot afford higher end, relatively safer treatments, they result to using these more dangerous alternatives.

There are vast studies that back-up the dangers of these skin-whitening methods, but brands will not budge on discontinuing the products, so long as the checks are clearing. They are not in the game of politics, but of business. We want to challenge these companies to consider the ethics of their business ventures because the advertising dollars they put into commercials and billboards that perpetuate colorist ideologies ultimately cultivate real beauty dysphoria for the consumers. It’s not only superficial, but skin bleaching is also a way of survival for many—particularly women.

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Which Products or Ingredients Should You Use?

If you are looking for skin lightening or spot treatment ingredients, the first thing you'd want to do is consult with a physician and/or dermatologist to have an in depth review of your particular skin needs. Some ingredients that have been researched for this purpose are as follows:

1) Kojic Acid: a naturally derived lightening and brightening active derived from malted rice that inhibits an enzyme necessary for melanin production

2) Vitamin C: a multi - tasking antioxidant that is made naturally by the skin, but can be synthetically or naturally derived

3) Alpha - arbutin: made from the leaves of the bearberry plant, it's effective between 1 - 2% and works to inhibit your skin's tyrosinase enzymes

4) Niacinamide: a multi - tasking antioxidant that works to lighten scarring and helps ward off acne

5) Azelaic Acid: helps to even skin tone, calm redness, and brighten skin 

6) Allantoin: naturally derived from the Comfrey plant, it is a keratolytic agent that promotes skin cell turnover, which helps to brighten skin complexion 

7) Gigawhite: patented skin lightening ingredient naturally derived from seven alpine plants, including peppermint and cowslip, that potentially suppress tyrosinase (the chemical enzyme responsible for melanin production)

8) Licorice Root Extract: contains glabridin, which inhibits tyrosinase, and liquirtin, which disperses the remaining melanin in the skin to brighten skin and diminish dark spots

9) Mulberry Extract: naturally derived from mulberry plants, and contains retinoids, ascorbic acid, and resveratrol that can help to brighten skin and neutralize free radicals to maintain a healthy appearance


Colorism is a Classist Issue

The truth is, if the beauty standard exists, companies will profit and continue to blame the market. The messaging is that the big brands are meeting the demand of consumers - however, what isn't discussed is the social and classist issue that ties into the desire to have lighter, or whiter skin. Professor Amina Mire describes the phenomenon related to discrimination based on darker skin tone as shadeism. She says, "it plays into the ways different shades were awarded different priveledges or lack of it...and whiteness is marketed like a product." European beauty standards are upheld in every crevice of the globe but shows up in different ways depending on where we are on the map. 

1) Asia is one of the leading continents when it comes to the infiltration of light and dark caste system. In the Philippines 1 out of 2 people have tried skin bleaching cosmetics, but to be fair the country is also experiencing rapid economic growth, which in turn creates a competitive job market. Lighter skin is associated with more opportunity and financial success. Lighter skin “is almost a status symbol like having an Hermes bag,” Dr. Vicki told Refinery29 in an interview. In fact, the desire for lighter skin in Asia has so much influence, that colorism and poverty are one in the same in India. For darker skinned Indians, economic mobility is extremely difficult.

2) Africa is not too far off from Asian culture when it comes to colorist sociology, so it too is a target market for skin bleaching products. In Nigeria the bride price for a light- skinned woman is much higher than for a dark-skinned woman because lighter skin is more sought after. So, in a patriarchal society where unwedded women are looked down upon and receive less opportunity—this custom is a disadvantage to darker skinned women.

3) The United States is a social media powerhouse and how we view beauty has transformed rapidly due to Instagram. We’ve gone from Paris Hilton to Kim Kardashian as the standard over the past two decades. Black culture is more accessible in social media and has become the popular culture—hence the rise of Blackfishing in media. There is also a common archetype of successful black men with ambiguous light-skinned women within the culture. More black men equate light- skinned women with success and light- skinned women have the privilege and option in using their skin tone within the culture for more opportunity.

The key in colorism in the United States is the freedom to exercise that privilege. Who has it and who does not? White people, non-black people of color and lighter skinned black people have a privilege in this system that darker skinned women do not—freedom of choice. Darker skinned women cannot Rachel Dolezal their way to success.

We’ll find these common narratives around the world in places where colonialism or slavery were a part of the history—including South and Central America, and The Caribbean. Professor of race and education Shirley Ann Tate states, “People are just responding to the context in which they find themselves.” And it’s true, colorism at the core is a systemic class issue. The goal is not to transform into a white person, but to achieve the acceptable level of lightness appropriate to not only survive, but to thrive in the environment we’re in.


The Future of the Beauty Market

Beauty brands have taken this classist vulnerability and transformed it into a dangerous skin bleaching commodity. Companies like Dove and L’Oréal are using marketing as a scapegoat to swerve accountability. Beiersdorf, Nivea’s parent company made a statement on the matter, “Our affiliates carry a diverse portfolio of products that are aimed at addressing the broad range of skin care wants of our consumers around the world.” Really? Even if the “wants” are centered in racist and classist oppression?

You can find this type of subtle, subliminal messaging in adverts even as recent as 2017, like with Dove's US marketing advert that shows a black woman turning into a white woman, suggesting cleaner, clearer skin - and just as you would think, there was immense backlash over this. While we suggest to vet the brand, the marketing strategy, and the messaging behind brand adverts, some terms to look for in marketing are: "whitening", "brightening", "lightening", "fair", "white" or any images depicting a model transitioning from a darker tone to a lighter tone with the corresponding messaging or terms. 

Dove's controversial, racist beauty ad rooted in colorism

Studies show that skin-care consumers are becoming more likely to purchase from brands that don’t require them to be different versions of who they are. “When marketing to the new generation, it is essential to remember that they will reject any beauty narrative that make them feel bad about themselves to sell products. The conventional marketing strategy that the beauty industry has been built on is now recognized as damaging,” states Clare Varga head of beauty at market intelligence firm WGSN. And she is not alone, Dr. Ewoma Ukeleghe, a global brand consultant and skincare specialist states her millennial and Gen-Z clientele are "very adamant about not lightening their skin.”

Small, new and independent beauty companies are seeing greater success because their inclusive standards are winning over consumers. Marginalized groups are empowered and no longer waiting for change but taking action and putting their dollars with skin care brands that align with their values. The beauty industry should be so inclusive that the only standard that exist is one of self-love, health and wellness and while we’re not quite there yet, as more high quality and ethical brands like Bellavana Beauty arise, the odds are in our favor.


Additional International Beauty Ads & Colorism in Beauty Documentaries



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