‘DO NOT GO TOWARDS THE LIGHT!’: The Skin Bleaching Pandemic

When the average Joe hears about skin bleaching, or lightening as it is more commonly referred to, there are often connotations of black people particularly African Americans using it as it is a popular held belief that a lighter skin tone connotes education, social mobility and heterosexual desirability. Although this is very true to the African American community, and could easily be viewed as the root for many of the motivations for using the products, the African American market is relatively small when comparing it to the staggering one billion dollar skin whitening industry which dominates Asia. What this then implies is that skin bleaching is not only used for individuals who have darker complexions as Asia is a continent where the majority of the population is considered light skin. Thus eliminates predetermined notions that skin bleaching is only for darker skinned people and elevates the crisis from a national epidemic to a global pandemic.

Commercial skin bleaching, not using chemicals but rather plant extracts which perform the same task.
Commercial skin bleaching, not using chemicals but rather plant extracts which perform the same task.

Many skin bleaching products contain chemical bleaching agents such as: hydroquinone, mercury and lead which could also be found in everyday household products such as, bleach, washing powder, and battery acid. A study has observed that hydroquinone, one of the key ingredients in skin bleachers, aggressively penetrates the multiple layers of skin till it reaches the bloodstream and inevitably circulates throughout the body. The continual use of products containing these harmful (at times industrial grade) chemicals creates a harmful build-up in the body which consequently results in irreversible skin damage. Epidermal atrophy – the wasting of the epidermal layer of the skin –, exogenous ochronisis – the blue and black discolouration of the skin – and cancer as a possible result of skin lesions becoming cancerous are a few of the undeniably hazardous outcomes of prolonged skin bleaching. Skin bleaching products, despite their long term effects resulting in the horrific deformities of the skin, does have medicinal value as it could be prescribed by a dermatologist (of course) to treat hyperpigmentation disorders such as Addison’s disease and Linea nigra, which both results in the natural discolouration of skin this however constitutes a very small amount of users.

The desire for a lighter skin tone has become a global phenomenon, to the point where skin bleaching products are sold in enormous retail chain stores in Japan, China, India, Latin America as well as some parts of Europe and Africa. The question is then asked, ‘why are women, in Africa and South Africa particularly bleaching their skin and what are the motivations behind it?’ Historically Africa was carved up into colonies by the global North, which were of European descent and typically light skinned. Colonisers treated Africans whom were obviously darker than themselves lesser, and sometimes even referred to them as un-human or animals. Naturally the colonisers needed menial labour to help them strip the mineral rich land for their country and personal financial gain, thus enslaved the Africans in order to do so. However lighter skinned Africans were treated better than those who had a darker complexion, which famously could be attributed to the African American example of ‘House Nigger’ and ‘Field Nigger’ where the darker skinned slaves worked in the field and light skinned slaves worked in the house , as they were considered more beautiful and presentable. Consequently the enslaved Africans encompassing both light skinned and dark skinned individuals attributed wealth, education, beauty, marriageability and social mobility to having light skin.

This therefore could explain why many women bleach their skin and why it is still so prevalent today, as it was something to aspire to for many black or dark skinned women during slavery and the decades of institutionalised segregation. But has the pandemic spread to South Africa and its beautifully diverse women?  According to a Pigmentation Specialist serving a diverse clientele and specializing in ethnic skin, many people have come to inquire about lightening their skin some even asking if they could be white, however Sinead Featherstone does say that this was about 30 years ago. Many of the clients who she provides a service to are looking to even out their complexion where there is scarring or dark spots, and not exclusively to bleach their skin. “It is more of a hazardous problem outside of South Africa” she says, where people in Tanzania and Senegal lighten their skin in order to appear lighter and not to reduce dark marks caused by scarring. Part of the reason for South Africa’s relatively low percentage of skin bleachers (which is 35%) could be due to the banning of Hydroquinone, a chemical which is the key ingredient in skin bleachers.

However we cannot ignore the fact that in contemporary Africa there is a sort of “psychological colonisation” occurring where Western beauty ideals are so deeply embedded and constantly perpetuated through media images, that individuals would willingly undergo bodily modification that will result in long term health problems. It has been noted in a study that on the African continent skin bleaching has increased tremendously amongst women, in previous years skin bleach was only used by rural uneducated women to increase their marriageability as marriage was considered the only way to escape poverty. However in recent years women whom are considered educated and upwardly mobile have also begun bleaching thus altering the motivations for skin bleaching in Africa.

Although this is a rapidly increasing trend amongst women globally, it can be combated through proper education about the harmful products skin bleach contains as well as increasing self-worth and self-image.

Ladizinski, B., Mistry, N., Kundu, V. R. 2011. Widespread use of Toxic Skin Lightening Compounds: Medical and Psychosocial Aspects. Dermatol Clin. 29:111-123.

Lewis, M. K., Robkin, N., Gaska, K., Njoki, C. L. 2011. Investigating Motivations for Women’s Skin Bleaching in Tanzania. Psychology of Woman’s Quarterly. 35(1):29-37.

Glenn, N. E. 2008. Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners. Gender and Society. 20(10):1-18.


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