More than just skin deep: skin lightening/bleaching is a serious public health problem

Skin colour is one of the most obvious markers of difference among people and has long been a topic of much controversy and discussion in many societies around the world. The variation in skin colour is simply a result of different amounts of the pigment melanin in the skin. One’s genes determine the amount of melanin one has. Also, variation in how genes are expressed can result in many different skin tones within a single family. I, for example, was the ‘brownie’ of my family, having much darker skin than my siblings.

Taking advantage of differences among each other has always been done, especially when groups of people compete for resources and power. Using skin colour to subjugate however, and creating entire ideologies and social systems based on this superficial difference has its specific origins in the exploitative institutions of the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism which flourished by deeming darker skinned people as less — less human, less intelligent, less able to govern themselves, less worthy, disposable and expendable. None of this has any real basis in biology or science however; it’s simply something created by one group of people to exploit and dominate another.

20140801health logoToday, while there are laws forbidding discrimination on grounds such as race and ethnicity, and while more persons have come to embrace the beauty of darker skin, hierarchies which privilege light skin over dark still exist, affecting many people’s daily existence. Hateful and racist notions about skin colour still persist and maintain a powerful grip on many people’s psyche. In response, chemical lightening aka skin bleaching has become a multi-billion dollar industry globally, with major cosmetic corporations such as Unilever, home of Ponds, Vaseline, and Dove; as well as smaller, less well-known companies profiting hugely.

The skin is our first and largest line of defence against dangerous bacteria and microorganisms. It also plays an extremely important role in maintaining hydration and body temperature- critical for our health and survival. By bleaching, lightening, and otherwise tampering with the natural functioning of our skin, we put ourselves at risk for serious illness. Skin lightening and bleaching products work by using chemicals to reduce or block the amount of melanin that the skin produces. Melanin is important because it protects our skin from getting damaged by the sun. Artificially reducing the amount of melanin in one’s skin can therefore increase one’s risk of skin cancer.

Also worrying is the fact that many of the chemicals used in skin lightening/bleaching products have been found to be toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing). Many of them cause thinning and irritation of the skin, as well as scarring and ironically, skin discoloration, after prolonged usage. Hydroquinone and mercury – two common skin bleaching/lightening ingredients – have been shown to cause leukemia and kidney damage specifically, when used over extended periods of time. Mercury also affects brain functioning and its misuse can cause anxiety, depression, and other neurological impairments (aka brain damage). Also, when these products are washed off and end up in the waterways, they accumulate in fish and other marine species, causing further health problems when those animals are consumed (foetal brain development, in particular, is negatively affected by mercury).

In the USA, the limit on mercury in beauty products is 1 part per million. As a result, many skin lightening/bleaching products are banned there and in the European Union. However, skin lightening/bleaching products with these dangerous chemicals still find their way to markets in other parts of the world that have less stringent health and safety regulations. Also, often, these chemicals aren’t even named on the ingredient list.

Some people are not aware of the dangers of skin lightening/bleaching. Because it is practiced by many around the world, including numerous high-profile people and celebrities, it may appear normal or non-threatening. However, the fact is that there are many products on the market that are extremely dangerous to our health. They remain available because of a lack of proper health and safety regulations in many countries, and because the wealthy and powerful cosmetic companies spend a great deal of money manipulating people to believe that they need these products.

Millions of dollars are spent on advertising which brainwashes people into believing that they are lacking and un-loveable unless they have lighter skin. People are taught to hate themselves to such an extent that they willingly spend their hard earned dollars on products that poison and hurt themselves. This needs to stop.

We need to realize that we are all worthy of love and respect no matter the colour of our skin. We need to develop more critical thinking skills and understand that the cosmetic companies are only trying to make and take our money; they don’t really care about our well-being. We need to learn our history and from the past. We need to resist prejudice and challenge all those who perpetuate racism in our societies. We need to develop new standards of beauty and self-esteem to teach to the youth. We need to work to dismantle all the systems that oppress and depress people based on nonsensical things like skin colour. We need to understand that using skin bleaching/lightening products can seriously harm our health and we need to advocate for stronger health and safety regulations to protect consumers from these predatory companies.

The good news is that much of the damage to the skin and organs from skin lightening/bleaching can be reversed. The good news is that skin bleaching and self-hate are learned behaviours and as such they can be unlearned and stopped. The good news is that enlightened persons can make better laws and create healthier societies and systems. We do not have to continue to be pawns of others; we have the power within us to create positive changes. Again, our self-worth is not based on the colour of our skin; those who seek to convince us otherwise are peddling ignorance of the highest order. Let us not fall prey to this shallow reasoning; we can and must do better.

Sherlina can be contacted at

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