Pretty much every woman wants clear, glowing skin. But for many women of colour, a flawless complexion often equals light skin – a belief that can lead to the dangerous practice of skin lightening or 'bleaching' as it is sometimes referred to.
A 2011 survey by the British Skin Foundation (BSF) found that a third of people using skin-lightening products have done so because they believed lighter skin was more attractive. According to consultant dermatologist and BSF spokesperson, Dr Anjali Mahto, some even feel the process may improve their marriage prospects or job opportunities, especially in certain communities where lighter skin is a sign of prominence, superiority and higher social ranking. Dija Ayodele, aesthetician and founder of the Black Skin Directory, explains further: "Usually there is an element of insecurity in some people that suggests their dark skin tone is holding them back from progressing in life, be it economically or romantically. That said, 'bleaching' cuts across all economic strata, from the less well-off using DIY lotions to the affluent who can afford 'better' creams or even intravenous drips."
While aesthetician Dr Barbara Kubicka mentions that uneven skin pigmentation (often due to sun damage or acne scarring and the aftermath of other forms of skin inflammation) is one reason for using lightening products, the pressure women of colour face regarding their skin tone is enormous and many would argue has its roots in colourism, a type of prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone; it typically occurs among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Indeed, 11% of respondents to the aforementioned BSF survey cited pressure from both family and friends to have lighter skin, while Dr Sharon Wong, consultant dermatologist at HCA UK, believes that the issue is exacerbated by the media and the beauty industry, which has long portrayed Western beauty ideals of lighter skin and Caucasian features as "the most desirable".
According to the experts, said products can range from the use of safe and legal concentrations of ingredients prescribed by a specialist (such as glycolic acid, niacinamide and vitamin C) to the use of illegal bleaching products over large areas of the body. The most well-known skin lightening ingredient is hydroquinone. Over-the-counter products containing hydroquinone have been banned in the UK since 2001, yet the products continue to be sold and used at an alarming rate, with research suggesting the global market for skin lighteners will be worth $31.2 billion by 2024. Dr Wong says she sees patients who have obtained products illegally from the UK black market or brought back products from abroad where regulations are perhaps less stringent.
Ayodele says that hydroquinone can be used safely in concentrations up to 4%, but in banned skin lightening products, it can double in digit percentages. "Hydroquinone works by inhibiting production of the pigment melanin, which gives skin its colour," continues Dr Mahto. "Its overuse has been linked with a blue-grey pigmentation known as ochronosis, which develops in the skin. It can also damage elastin strands, causing premature ageing and weakening of skin. Long-term, widespread use can also cause problems with the nerves and liver." Aside from hydroquinone, Dr Mahto pinpoints mercury as a common toxic element in skin lightening products, which can cause damage to the kidney, liver and brain, while steroids can interfere with blood pressure, cause diabetes, osteoporosis and weight gain, and glutathione-based oral tablets and injections have been associated with kidney damage and thyroid disease, according to Dr Wong.
Because of the stigma attached to skin lightening, Dr Wong has found that women are rarely forthcoming with their skin lightening habits. Ayodele agrees: "Skin bleaching isn’t a topic that the vast majority of women of colour would admit to. You get people saying they are 'toning' or 'freshening up' their complexion, but much as skin bleaching is a physical act, I believe it is very much psychological, and that’s what needs to be looked at."
Dr Mahto concludes: "It is not recommended to try and change someone’s entire skin tone for ethical and medical reasons. Hydroquinone-based agents, for example, can be used safely under the supervision of a consultant dermatologist to treat areas of patchy pigmentation with good results, but there is no safe, recognised method to lighten your entire skin."
Ahead, three women share their experiences of using skin lightening products.
I lighten my skin for two reasons: sometimes it is to smooth blemishes and sometimes, as with makeup and fashion, it is simply an extension of how I feel at that time. There are also occasions where I’ve chosen to darken my skin because that’s how I’ve felt.
My products are always legitimate, over the counter, or prescribed and I tend to use a wide variety of them. My usage really depends on wherever and whenever I feel it is needed, which is usually after the summer or after giving birth. I’ve noticed my skin gets super dry and patchy often and I also suffer from eczema, which worsens during the summer.
While I’m against all under the counter or illegal skin lightening products, I also believe that one should be thoroughly educated on the matter before using them. I have personally never experienced any issues with pain or irritation while using these products nor have I ever been advised to stop. I don’t have any concerns about the long-term health impact as I use the products under medical supervision.
I’m very much about freedom of speech and feel strongly about freedom of choice and self-expression. I’m not going to conform to some supposed racial or ethnic norms. Being a mum of seven multicultural children, I do not want to suggest in any way that it’s necessary to conform to other people’s rules. My children do not think of themselves as a colour but as human beings, as do I.
I’m originally from the Philippines but I have lived in the UK all my life. I’m not too sure why skin lightening products are so popular over there, but I’ve heard things like those with whiter skin have more of an advantage in life, for example, when it comes to getting a job. I felt pressure to lighten my skin at a young age and was encouraged by my friends and family. I first started using these products when I was really young, actually, because people used to tell me I was "dark for a Filipina" – they still do.
As I get older, I’m very slowly learning to embrace my naturally tanned skin, but I use a range of hydroquinone-based skin lightening products such as face creams and body lotions, and I’ve taken skin lightening tablets in the past. Once, I even tried skin lightening injections. Some people are sceptical, but they have all worked for me, although I’m not sure what ingredients were in any of them...
I guess it's normalised. Most people in the Philippines use these products, even celebrities. No one hides it – it’s really common and just part of an everyday skincare routine. Nivea, Olay, Vaseline – lots of brands we all buy here in the UK sell skin lightening products in the Philippines in places such as department stores and Watsons and Mercury, which are basically the Philippines’ equivalent of Boots or Superdrug. I don’t know anyone who has reported any skin damage or major, dangerous changes in their skin from using these products. I now know it’s illegal to buy certain skin lightening products in the UK, but I guess I’m not really that bothered about it.
My skincare routine is quite varied; at the moment I’m having a bout of bad skin with a severe acne outbreak and subsequent hyperpigmentation. I’ve used skin lightening products twice before. The first time was about 10 years ago when I used a product called Maxi Light. It was a trend at the time and all my friends were using these creams and looking good. I wanted the same glow and thought it must be the products they were using. However, I stopped once I realised it was also having a lightening effect and one day I looked in the mirror and realised I just didn’t recognise myself.
More recently, I used the Makari brand. Someone recommended it to me as a good brand for managing acne in dark skin tones but advised that because it had a lightening effect, it was best to use it over the whole body to prevent the 'two-tone' effect. I soon began to notice that my skin felt thinner and my veins were becoming more visible. I also experienced an increased sensitivity, and my skin would hurt if it rubbed against anything so I stopped using it.
Both times, my mum and other family members noticed that my skin was brighter, and some commented that I was looking good but I’ve never received any negative feedback about it. The products are very easy to source and there is a lot of choice and variety. Every single afro hair shop stocks them, despite the ban. When you ask questions, owners will sing the praises of various brands, but I’m educated enough now to know the dangers of ingredients like hydroquinone, and will always check for it on the label.
I was never that person who wanted to be light for the sake of being light. It is a purely practical choice for skincare purposes, as I like being dark skinned. I just want clear skin and a glow. Though I haven’t used any lightening products very recently, I would probably use them again – just more carefully.
*Some names have been changed