Fair Skin at What Cost?: The Toxic Effects of Skin Bleaching

by Sarah Webb In the United States, skin bleaching is generally frowned upon. We think of it more ...

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by Sarah Webb

In the United States, skin bleaching is generally frowned upon. We think of it more as an anomaly, a strange spectacle for us to ponder. But for many black women and women of color around the world, skin bleaching is a regular routine, one that’s openly discussed, expected, promoted, and practiced, even on infants and young children.

When we talk about something like skin bleaching, many people say it’s no different than pale people getting tans. Well, they’re right about that. Tanning and bleaching are very similar in that both can be severely detrimental to a person’s health, especially for those who can’t afford vetted, high-quality bleaches. Of course most people survive these practices, but not without long-term damage to their skin and overall health. There’s also the economic cost of skin bleaching. People continue to exploit colorism and racism for profit. So, I ask: Fair skin at what cost?

Health Costs

The source of danger when tanning, of course, is overexposure to UV rays. The source of danger when bleaching is overexposure to certain chemicals.

Throughout history, among different groups of people, and in various places around the globe, people have created a myriad of concoctions to lighten the skin. In Europe, certain whitening cosmetics once contained white lead which could cause symptoms as serious as blindness or paralysis. Today many skin whiteners around the world use corticosteroids, hydroquinone, and mercury. Evelyn Glenn explains that extended exposure to these chemicals (like lathering it on your skin on a daily basis) can have harmful effects such as neurological damage, kidney disease, ochronosis, eczema, bacterial and fungal infections, skin atrophy, and Cushing’s Syndrome.

What’s worse? Once exposed to some of these chemicals, the body forms a type of dependency, making it difficult to stop using the product because of adverse reactions when you do. Afua Hirsch quotes Dr Fatou Fall, a dermatologist from the Institute of Social Hygiene in Dakar, Senegal: “Even when they discover the side-effects and want to stop using the creams, they find they cannot stop. It’s only when you stop that the skin changes and begins to become completely burned.”

The Economic Cost

With the rise of the internet, the world players in the skin bleaching market have become even more connected. Companies have new inroads for marketing and distribution, and consumers have greater access to information and products. This is one reason why I’m such an advocate for using the internet as a means of counteracting, the obsession with lighter skin.

Glenn writes about how skin lightening is “interwoven into the world economic system and its transnational circuits of products, capital, culture, and people” and about the “media and messages, cultural themes and symbols, used to create the desire for skin lightening products.” These products are manufactured in some countries and exported or smuggled into others. The media messages are conceived and created by a few individuals and are projected throughout the world. For example, Glen writes that, “Distribution of mercury soap has been illegal in the EU since 1989, but it’s manufacture has remained legal as long as the product is exported.”

To be blunt, I interpret this type of legislation as race- or ethnicity-based capitalism. The governments and the manufacturers in those countries know the dangers of mercury and want to protect their own people, but are quite willing to make a profit at the expense of people’s health in other nations.

According to Glenn, “the desire for lighter skin and the use of skin bleaches is accelerating in places where modernization and the influence of western capitalism and culture are most prominent.”

And so, the new face of imperialism can be seen in magazines, on billboards, and on Movie, TV, and computer screens around the globe. The skin bleaching market is similar to colonialism in that the promotion of white superiority allows a few powerful and wealthy groups to become increasingly wealthy and powerful at the cost of masses of other people.

Monisha Rajesh reported that in 2012, Indians consumed an estimated 233 tons of bleaching products. Glenn presents further research revealing that in terms of sheer numbers, Indians make up the largest skin bleaching market. In some African cities, as many as 52-77% of women use skin lighteners. A Synovate market survey in 2004 showed that 50% of respondents in the Philippines reported using skin lighteners. In places like Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea, global surveys report that 20-50% of the respondents had used skin bleaches and would use more if they could afford it. Mercury laden creams are still widely available in parts of Latin America, and in the U.S. women of all races, including Europeans and whites, have long legacies of skin whitening or lightening. And these indicators probably underestimate the practice of skin bleaching around the globe.

As with most beauty products, skin bleaches are primarily marketed to women.

The Reasoning

In desperate attempts to escape the negative stereotypes and associations with dark skin, to escape various forms of discrimination, and to escape other concrete forms of oppression, people try to attain privileges that come with having white or light skin. Dr. Blay lists the most common reasons that Ghanian and Tanzanian women give for using skin lighteners, including:

to remove blemishes and imperfections and to counteract effects of the sun

to appear and feel clean

to appear white, European, and “beautiful”

to please a partner, grab attention, or attract potential mates

to impress peers, appear sophisticated and modern, and gain economic and social mobility.

According to Glenn, some African American women who participate in internet forums, the goal is to have light skin not white skin. They also state the desire to even out skin tone, remove blemishes, or to be two or three shades lighter like many American celebrities such as Halle Berry or Beyonce.


As I stated before, imperialism continues in a more high-tech and glamorous fashion, but it’s still the basic practice of presenting one thing as the ideal, so that a few can capitalize off the masses trying to attain that ideal. Can black women and other women of color unite to affirm their true colors and to halt the manufacture and marketing of harmful skin bleaching products?

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