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.