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I’ve been mulling over this topic ever since Buzzfeed’s “Are You Unwittingly Buying Whitening Products?” and Vox’s “Why the Market for Skin Whitening Is Growing” videos came out in late 2017/early 2018, but didn’t really feel like I had a good enough grasp on the topic to write about it until recently.
Hopefully this won’t be interpreted as hopping on a trend, but a large part of my reluctance was the fear of being accused of “playing the race card”, or “discouraging people with good intentions”. Perhaps there’s been enough of a shift in the last week that this will be better received than I originally anticipated.
I don’t think any of this post will come as a surprise to any non-white skincare enthusiasts, but maybe it’ll be enlightening (heh) to some people who may have wondered why so many well-educated people of colour use seemingly problematic “whitening” products.
Colourism is a big problem
Colourism – judging people by the colour of their skin – is pretty widespread in non-Western countries. It is a massive, damaging problem, and this post is definitely not meant to minimise the immense negative impact that colourism has.
If you go into the beauty aisle in the supermarket in Asian and African countries, you’ll often see a ton of whitening products. And a lot of beauty marketing for these products give messages that perpetuate the colourist preference for lighter skin:
These concepts have a long cultural history, and often have been socially ingrained since childhood. A lot of this ties in with female worth being tied to appearance, which is the case in Western society, but frequently even more so in other cultures.
Slight differences in skin tone can have a serious impact on your life: skin tone can affect romantic and job prospects, African-Americans with darker skin have lower wages and longer prison sentences. People sometimes go to incredible lengths to bleach skin, using caustic agents and unregulated injections that can have nasty side effects.
Colourism isn’t just “wanting to be white”
But colourism isn’t simply a matter of racism and people undergoing extreme body modifications to turn themselves white. While this is easy to assume given the use of white celebrities in advertising and the harms of colonialism, there is a range of skin tones within each ethnic group, and in most countries colourism arises from a complex interaction of classism, colonialism and globalisation.
In many countries, colourism existed long before contact with Europeans. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where many whitening products come from – the preference for light skin comes from implications about social status. If your skin is lighter, you’re rich enough to avoid working in the fields under the sun.
A lot of the time this has been reinforced by colonialism, and the spread of Western aesthetics due to globalisation, but it’s occurred to different extents in different countries.
Assuming that all colourism comes from white supremacy erases the complexities of these cultural norms, turning all non-Western cultures into one giant monolith. It also centres whiteness and assumes that Western value systems are universal. White supremacy certainly didn’t help, but non-Western cultures were perfectly capable of discrimination before white people came along. This oversimplification also doesn’t help when it comes to finding solutions to colourism.
In recent times, activism against colourism has been taking off, although changing cultural norms is always a slow battle.
Skin of colour is prone to pigment disorders
But why use whitening products, if not because of colourism?
The short answer is: uneven pigmentation. Pigmentation problems affect skin of colour much more than white skin. But like in many other areas of research, there are less studies performed on ethnic populations.
There’s also less general awareness of these disorders. For many white people, including well-read skincare enthusiasts, “uneven pigmentation” just brings to mind freckles and tan lines. But there’s a wide spectrum of pigmentation disorders, and even medical reference sites give only the briefest information on them.
One survey of dermatology patients found that pigmentary disorders other than vitiligo were the 3rd most common problem in black patients (9% of patients), whereas in white patients it was the 7th most common problem (2% of patients).
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) – brown marks that can linger for 4+ months after acne goes away – is incredibly common in skin of colour (65% of black, 53% of Hispanic and 47% of Asian acne patients had hyperpigmented spots in one survey), and is often the main reason for visiting the dermatologist.
Melasma, a condition where large patches of brown pigment develop on the face, was recorded to have a prevalence of 5% in France, 16% in Iran and 46% in Pakistan in pregnant women.
These are just two of the many pigmentary disorders that exist, and they lead to a lot of psychological distress.
In general, the darker the skin, the more prone to pigmentation it is, but even as a relatively light-skinned East Asian there’s a wide gap between my potential for pigmentation vs a white person’s. For example, sun-related hyperpigmentation runs in my dad’s side of the family – this is my 60-something dad, who isn’t outdoorsy but has a half-hour daily commute by car (and doesn’t wear sunscreen, tsk):
Treating pigment needs “whitening” ingredients
You can’t just lighten excess pigment
There are a number of ways that ingredients can work to reduce pigment, which I went through in my post on alternatives to hydroquinone. The main ways are:
- slow down the production of pigment by melanin-producing enzymes (particularly tyrosinase)
- reduce the amount of melanin-producing enzymes (particularly tyrosinase)
- undo melanin production by these enzymes
- slow down maturation of melanosomes (pigment producing organelles)
- prevent melanin pigment from travelling from where they’re made to where they’re seen
- increasing skin turnover, so the pigment is shed faster and gets diluted
However, the melanin pigment that appears in these hyperpigmentation disorders is the same pigment that makes skin coloured. That means that skincare ingredients can’t entirely distinguish between excess pigment and natural pigment.
Using any ingredient that reduces the appearance of excess pigment will also lighten skin, at least to some extent – Fair & Lovely, one of the brands with the more notorious colourism-based marketing, uses the benign and ubiquitous niacinamide (vitamin B3) as its main active ingredient. Avoiding niacinamide is near impossible these days, since it has so many benefits outside of its pigment-fading action.
Unavoidable skin lightening is particularly the case in dark skin as it’s more prone to producing more pigmentation and darkening, even with minimal UV exposure, and even with just visible light exposure. Most people with darker skin will be drastically different colours in summer and winter, and simply wearing sunscreen often means you need to change to a lighter foundation shade.
Fearmongering about “toxic chemicals”
The outrage about whitening products often gets muddied with chemophobia about “toxins”. While some of the products for bleaching skin do indeed use very “nasty” ingredients (mercury, caustic agents), most ingredients are quite benign, especially if used correctly and at a reasonable dose.
Hydroquinone gets a large share of the hate:
“a skin-lightening agent with side effects comparable to mercury poisoning” – Vice
“a chemical as toxic as paint stripper that can cause cancer” – The Day
But hydroquinone is the gold standard of topical hyperpigmentation treatments, and is frequently recommended by dermatologists, because it can be safely used.
Like for so many other ingredients in beauty products, the fearmongering surrounding hydroquinone is overblown. The cancer link is based on rat studies, but rats and humans process hydroquinone very differently. Hydroquinone is also naturally found in lots of food including pears (at 4-15 ppm). It can be irritating, increase sun sensitivity and cause ochronosis (hyperpigmentation), but many prescription skin products have a similar side effect profile.
Related post: Fact-check: The Dangers of Hydroquinone
There’s fearmongering about other whitening products and procedures too, even though they’re frequently used by white people to treat wrinkles, without anywhere near the same level of pearl-clutching:
“Other lightening methods include a chemical peel, which removes the top layer of your skin. This leaves fresher skin exposed to harmful solar radiation and environmental pollutants. Laser treatments offer an even more aggressive approach by breaking up a skin’s pigmentation, sometimes with skin-damaging results.” – qz.com
There are some differences in the approach taken between lightening skin overall, and aiming for even skin colour. Overall lightening usually uses illegal products, which can contain levels of hydroquinone and corticosteroids well beyond what a dermatologist would prescribe, and sometimes mixed in with dangerous ingredients like mercury and strong alkalis. The products are also used on a much larger surface area, and for prolonged, continuous periods of time, often without warnings about sun protection. Sometimes destruction of melanocytes (the cells that make melanin) is the aim for overall bleaching, whereas it’s seen as an unwanted side effect when treating pigment disorders.
But there’s no hard line between “products that even out pigmentation” and “products that lighten skin overall”, as ideal as that would be.
Why not boycott whitening products?
Clearly, avoiding all “whitening” ingredients is not possible if you want to reduce uneven pigmentation. Avoiding all products that use “whitening” claims and language that evokes colourism isn’t practical either.
Given that there’s so little awareness of pigmentation problems, and that pigmentation problems mostly affect darker skin, it’s unsurprising that there just aren’t many products in Western markets that effectively treat pigmentation.
That’s one of the reasons why so many people with darker skin turn to Korean and Japanese beauty products – products that target pigmentation are commonplace, with ingredients like AHAs, niacinamide, arbutin, kojic acid, licorice extract and vitamin C, and budget-friendly options are easy to find.
But in English-speaking countries, we can appreciate that “brightening” doesn’t imply “lighten your skin by a whole shade” while “whitening” might. These nuances aren’t generally understood in countries where native English speakers are scarce. Sometimes the literal translation of the words used to describe lightening pigmentation include the word “white”, even if the product was never intended to whiten skin tone overall.
This lost-in-translation impreciseness can lead to awkward gaffes, like with Cosrx’s galactomyces-based pigment product, which has undergone several name changes from “White Power Essence” to “Whitening Power Essence”, and finally to the much less loaded “Tone Balancing Essence”. This came after customers from Western countries emailed them to explain the issue and suggest the name change.
Since the products for tackling uneven pigmentation and listening overall skin tone are essentially the same, I think that’s the way to move forward from perpetuating colourism through the use of these products – asking brands to change their messaging, through not only advertising, but also carefully selecting product names and the wording of claims. It’s also through getting more Western companies to acknowledge that they have customers with darker skin and different skincare needs, and catering to those customers. And of course, supporting activists who are advocating against colourism, and avoiding any perpetuation of colourism ourselves.
It’s not through denying people the products they need, shaming or pointedly questioning people for using whitening products, assuming that their explanations about hyperpigmentation are simple denial, or well-intentioned lecturing on the importance of self-love and the ills of white supremacy to someone who has grappled with colourism their entire life.