The thought of altering your skin colour might seem alien, even a little absurd – but for millions of people, skin lightening creams are just another part of their daily skincare routines.
Billions is spent advertising these creams to women, girls and, increasingly, men across the world. For years, ads for creams like Fair & Lovely and Ponds Whitening Cream have explicitly linked whiter skin to beauty, romance, and even career success.
There are two types of whitening creams – those that ‘lighten’, and those that ‘bleach’. Bleaching creams contain harsh chemicals that inhibit the production of melanin, and quite rapidly make the skin whiter. Lightening creams, however, don’t necessarily contain these chemicals, but will promise to whiten the skin with long-term use.
At best, these products are an ineffective waste of money that perpetuates entrenched racist, casteist and colourist views. At worst, they can leave users with lasting, sometimes irreparable damage to their skin.
Some countries have taken steps to tackle skin lightening trends. In 2014 India officially banned ‘colourist’ advertising, making it illegal for companies to portray dark-skinned people as being inferior in any way. In 2015, Ivory Coast banned skin-whitening creams altogether over concerns about unregulated products. A year later, Ghana followed suit.
But the increased regulation has barely made a dent in what continues to be a multi-billion pound industry. As of this year, the business of skin lightening and bleaching is estimated to be worth between £8billion and £15billion, with multinational beauty conglomerates like Unilever and L’Oreal cashing in on its popularity in South Asia and West Africa. In Nigeria, as many as 70% of women admit regularly using bleaching creams.
The creams are also potentially used by thousands of people across Britain – although, with most of the creams being sold illegally, it’s impossible to say exactly how widespread the problem is.
But it is a problem. Even today, dermatologists in Britain see patients with severe skin disorders directly linked to the use of bleaching creams.
Dr Adam Friedmann, a consultant dermatologist at the Harley Street Dermatology Clinic, told Metro.co.uk that bleaching creams often contain steroids, which ‘thin the skin so much it gives the appearance of lightening’, and mercury, which is potentially carcinogenic.
But one of the most dangerous ingredients contained in these creams is the lightening chemical hydroquinone.
‘Hydroquinone is prescribed to patients with hyperpigmentation,’ he said, referring to a condition where patients have patches of skin that are darker than their normal colour. ‘It is used topically and for a short period of time, perhaps a few months, to lighten the hyperpigmentation. When used correctly, under a dermatologist’s supervision, it is relatively harmless.’
But hydroquinone can cause dangerous side effects when not used in this way.