"Lighter skin is still seen as way better"
Skin lightening is a multi-billion-pound industry that continues to grow.
However, many argue this industry helps sustain and reinforce racial hierarchy and inequality.
The production and consumption of skin lightening products reflect the continued global idealisation of fair skin.
Colourism and the idealisation of fair skin still exist in communities like those who identify as South Asian.
The question is, should skin lightening practices be stigmatised?
Also, what are the consequences at an individual and societal level of such stigmatisation?
What is Skin Lightening?
Colourism refers to the fact that lighter-skinned individuals positioned as non-White are more likely to do economically and socially better than their darker-skinned counterparts.
Indeed, many South Asian girls and women face cultural norms that position fairness as best.
This leads to many feeling a need to lighten their complexions to be successful.
Skin lightening has a long history.
However, it was not until 18th and 19th-century Western European colonialism and slavery that complexion gained its powerful racial dimensions.
Skin lightening involves products such as creams that lighten the complexion by reducing melanin in the skin.
Melanin is what gives skin its colour and protects the skin from the sun.
However, this is only one method of skin lightening.
Skin lightening tablets and drinks have started to appear on the market, especially online, in recent years.
Usage of, for example, the agent glutathione for gaining a lighter complexion is on the rise.
However, there must be more research on the health implications of using glutathione and whether it lightens complexions.
Foundation is also used to gain fairer complexions without the risk of using skin lightening/bleaching products.
Mariam Yusuf, who is British Pakistani, has used foundation to lighten her complexion since she was 15:
“Using a foundation that’s one or two shades lighter is a good trick, as long as you blend well and do the neck.”
By using foundation, Mariam feels no need to use products that would potentially harm her skin:
“No worries about skin damage, and it keeps the family happy.”
Mariam lightens her complexion in part to please her family, most of whom she says are “lighter” than her.
This shows that skin lightening is not simply about individual consumer choice.
Family ties also play an important factor through which societal norms are reinforced and encouraged.
Is it Skin Lightening or Skin Bleaching?
Whilst some see skin lightening and skin bleaching as the same, others make a distinction between the two.
This is the case for Asha Khanam, a 28-year-old British Bangladeshi:
“Bleaching is not what we do.”
Asha goes on to say:
“I use skin lighteners that don’t have the bad things that can harm in them.
“Like Fair & Lovely (now Glow & Lovely) is a skin lightening cream and general cream, but it doesn’t bleach.”
Thus, suggesting more people are now opting for less toxic ways to lighten their complexion.
Skin Lightening Industry Backlash
Criticism of skin lightening products, their advertising, and usage is not new.
A legal case in 2020 saw issues of colourism and racial disparities saturate public discussions.
George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Movement (BLM), and protests attached to BLM helped shine a light on colourism and the skin lightening industry.
The backlash led to what appeared to be active change by a number of the key producers of legal skin lightening products.
Reuters reported that L’Oreal, removed words referring to “white,” “fair”, and “light” from its skin-evening products sold under its Garnier brand.
Unilever, one of the largest brands in the skin lightening industry facing heavy fire over their Fair & Lovely brand, also made changes.
Unilever decided to rename Fair & Lovely to: ‘Glow & Lovely’ and ‘Glow & Handsome’.
- Is renaming a brand enough?
- Does it change the symbolism associated with using the product – fair is best?
- Is it an artificial response?
In people’s lived experiences, the change in product names and words means very little.
*Ava Khan, a 23-year-old British Pakistani, believes this is “bogus”.
“Lighter skin is still seen as way better like you can get away with dusky skin depending on where you are.”
“The thing with changing names of the skin lighteners and stopping some of the products is bogus.”
Beauty Industry and Popular Culture
Visual representations matter. They influence people’s daily lives and help maintain norms and expectations around the ideal appearance.
Representations of beauty in Bollywood, Hollywood and the beauty industry construct and reinforce particular ideals of beauty and femininity.
Such representations are transmitted globally and overall support the idea that fair is best.
Skin lightening adverts are also strategic in marketing.
They associate lighter complexions with happiness, greater self-confidence and assurance.
Moreover, research across the social sciences has shown that the visual representations of beauty shown worldwide are ‘highly westernised’ and Eurocentric.
American scholar Margaret Hunter (2011) asserts an ‘illusion of inclusion’ exists in the media.
Arguably, non-White women in the media industry do not represent women from their communities.
Furthermore, Bollywood is well-known for reinforcing Western European beauty standards and ideals.
The Skin Lightening Market
Both the legal and illegal skin lightening markets worldwide are lucrative.
Maintaining racial inequality and colourism brings a significant stream of revenue.
The black market for skin lightening products can be difficult for police.
In the UK, Trading Standards work to enforce the law and protect consumers from hazardous skin lightening products.
In 2019 at Gatwick airport, West Sussex Trading Standards seized more than a tonne of potentially carcinogenic cosmetics, including skin lightening products.
However, with no specific unit dedicated to such work, they are stretched thin and resource-limited.
In turn, the distinction between legal/illegal and healthy/unhealthy skin lighteners is problematic.
Garner and Bibi (2016) undertook the first baseline survey looking at skin lightening practices in England. They wrote:
“It is worth noting that the ‘healthy’/ ‘unhealthy’ binary does not map directly on to the legal/illegal one (which is subject to legislation and can therefore change).
“While many deleterious outcomes of skin lightening use are medically identified, suppression of melanin per se.
“Even using ingredients that are currently legal seems likely to reduce the skin’s capacity to protect the body against skin cancer induced through UV rays.”
Discontinuing skin lightening legal products will not stop their usage but increase the black market for such products.
Yet, the complete discontinuation of legal skin lightening products seems unlikely, as they bring in a great deal of revenue.
Companies are spending billions on ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ ingredients that lighten complexions.
Moreover, now the language for such products and advertisements are becoming increasingly politically correct.
So is Stigmatising Skin Lightening Helpful?
Stigmatising skin lightening practices can isolate and alienate those who utilise them.
Consequently, causing people to hide and conceal their usage of skin lightening products could be unregulated and harmful.
Therefore, it is important to regulate the industry to protect the safety of consumers and ban dangerous products.
Removing skin lighteners from shopping aisles will not stop their production and consumption.
Instead, it will lead to the practice and issues of skin lightening being hidden.
Also, simply changing the names of products and stopping some product lines is a superficial symbolic gesture.
*Ava Khan believes banning these products will be useless:
“There are a zillion different types I can get by myself or from family.
“Stuff I can’t get in the UK my cousins can get from Pakistan easy.
“Plus, online there are places you can get them if not in local Asian stores.”
For Ava, the recent criticism around skin lighteners and what they represent means she will now:
“Be more careful in who I let know on the outside.”
In a society, profit is key, and the focus on making a change needs to be multi-dimensional.
The focus needs to be on altering the foundations of the beauty and cultural industry and thus society.
In addition, there must be changes to the traditional ideals and norms around appearance.
Therefore, there must be open conversations on colourism and racism in households.
Focusing only on rebranding products and stopping some product lines will not change people’s reality and culture.
Fairer complexions are still prevailing positioned as better than darker hues, leading to rewards in the everyday.
Ultimately, being the reason why many rely on skin lightening products, which is detrimental to ones mental and physical health.