The Scary Business Of Skin-Whitening Creams

Photo: Natalia Mantini
Towards the end of March, various news outlets reported that hundreds of illegal skin-lightening products containing a chemical linked to cancer were seized at Heathrow Airport. Sent from Nigeria, they were en route to south London when they were intercepted by Trading Standards officers. Head of Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards, Steve Ruddy, said in a statement: “Cosmetics like these have been banned in Britain since 2001 and yet we’re still uncovering attempts to ply a trade in them at the expense of people’s health. Working with border force staff, we’ll continue doing all we can to keep people safe from products such as these potentially life-threatening creams and stop them ending up in stores or being sold online in this country.” I have no doubt that Ruddy and his colleagues work tirelessly to stem the flow of black market goods but, much like fake Beats headphones or a pair of suspect Jimmy Choos, the reality is that most people can purchase skin-whitening creams almost as easily as they can a Big Mac.
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I chat to a friend, Ayesha, a 30-year-old trainee lawyer who grew up visiting beauty salons and shops that sold skin-lightening products. She laughs when I tell her about the seize. “You’ll still be able to find these creams in just about every beauty shop for black women in south London. They're readily available to purchase without anyone batting an eyelid, and I know women that do.”
Consultant dermatologist at The Harley Street Dermatology Clinic, Dr. Friedmann confirms that the problem is far bigger than perceived. “I see women, and men too, of all ages who have abused whitening products which have caused severe damage to their skin. What happens is that they don’t realise the formula has hydroquinone in, and they use too much, too often, and for too long. As a result, ochronosis sets in, where you get acid build-up in the skin which turns very pigmented and black.”
Products containing hydroquinone – the chemical in all those skin-lightening treatments seized at Heathrow, which has been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer – are illegal in the UK unless prescribed by a doctor for medical purposes. While banning hydroquinone may seem like a positive step towards stamping out what is regarded by many as a dangerous cosmetic practice, tackling the issues around perceived ideals of beauty is far more complex. In a recent feature for The New York Times, journalist Helene Cooper highlighted the issues faced by women in Ghana, for example: "The ban [on certain skin-lightening products] hasn’t extended to removing the countless billboard advertisements on how to get "perfect white" skin." The article references an estimate that puts the number of women in west Africa using lightening creams at 70%.
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Billboard ads of this kind may not be an issue for women in the UK but subliminal messages promoting Eurocentric beauty standards are still hugely prevalent. And while more and more body confidence campaigns are launched all the time, skin colour and beauty confidence campaigns have been left pretty much in the dark, from lack of representation in beauty advertisements to the countless brands who still don’t produce foundations for darker skin tones. “The natural hair movement has been brilliant for encouraging women to forgo weaves and wigs and embrace their natural texture,” explains Ayesha. “Yet I think there is less momentum to give up skin-whitening products." Does she believe that a similar movement could happen with skin lightening? “I’m not sure, women are more open about wearing weaves, whereas skin lightening isn’t as prevalent among the Instagram generation. I think maybe those that do use it don’t really understand the extent of the damage they are causing to their skin.”
Ayesha also says she finds open condemnation of their use problematic. “Celebrities such as Lil' Kim and Vybz Kartel received a huge backlash over their obvious skin bleaching, however they were criticised by people who occupy traditional white media, and who have little understanding of the systematic pressure women of colour are under to conform to beauty ideals that are predominately created by and for white women.” She adds: “While I don’t endorse Lil' Kim or even the women I know who use these products, I do understand why.”
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For an industry perspective, I also spoke to British model and actress Elena Fernandes about her experience with whitening creams. “I’ve used them before because… I guess because I trusted the brand name… and I do a lot of work in India, where whiteness is associated with wealth. It’s very sad but I know that if I get a tan, then I’m likely to lose work over there.” She added that respect for cultural differences has to be taken into consideration. “Western women sunbathe in order to make their skin tone darker, yet that comes under less scrutiny.” Since becoming a Bollywood star and gathering a young female fanbase, Elena refuses to use or endorse skin-lightening products, despite being approached by big brands. “I now do talks in schools and I’m in the mindset where I want young girls to embrace who they are and love the skin they’re in.”
The issue is also garnering attention in the world of cosmetic science, with the Open University launching England’s first survey on skin whitening. Led by Dr. Steve Garner, a lecturer there, the one-year pilot project is the first attempt to measure and understand the usage of these products, by surveying women from black and minority ethnic groups in London, Leicester and Birmingham. Funded by the British Academy on Skin Lightening, the project aims to create the first dataset about skin lightening in England by finding out why certain women feel the need to use skin lighteners. While the study is not setting out to criticise the women who use these creams, Dr. Garner explains that they “hope its findings will raise enough awareness to put the controversial practice into the spotlight.”
As a beauty editor, I constantly try to promote the goodness that can be found in my industry. Yet I’m under no illusions as to how ‘beauty’ can be manipulated to fuel insecurities in a bid to shift products. While history plays a huge part, the pursuit of light skin is more than just the result of colonial rule and tradition. Globalisation and the impact of consumerism helps to keep racism alive and kicking and this is where beauty brands must take responsibility. While Black Girl Magic and the natural hair movement are brilliant examples of how far we have come, the prevalence of skin whitening and lightening on social media, coupled with the openness of celebrities and influencers who alter their skin tone, are staunch reminders of how far we still need to go as a society. And until we get there, governments banning products is the equivalent of using a plaster to heal a bullet wound.
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