The Dark Side of Skin-Lightening

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Sirens crying, lights flashing, motorcars chasing—A police raid is underway. Neither lethal nor addictive, this covert chemical has been commercialised, infiltrating every aisle of retail. Interestingly, the police are not chasing down vapers, cocaine dealers, or weapon smugglers. They are looking high and low for skin-whitening products. Take a wince at the fine text on beauty products: hydroquinone is on each one. The highly toxic chemical originally intended for photo processing has found a home in a bottle of beauty cream as a skin bleach. Is the need to bleach our skin just another pointless beauty standard or proof of centuries of Colourism?

Since the 16th century, European nations established their dominance over Asians as they colonised the region. Remember when Sir Stamford Raffles first arrived on Singapore shores? Or when Indonesia was under the rule of the Dutch? The living conditions of Asians seemed primitive in comparison to the wealthier, formidable Europeans. Their snow-white skin was instantly distinguishable from the natives who tolled under the tropical sun.

Joanne Rondilla—the author of “Is Lighter Better? Skin-tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans”—is an assistant professor in Asian American Studies and Sociology at San Jose State University. She asserted that colonialism was an antecedent to the beginning of an ideology. If one had lighter skin, it insinuated that one belonged to the upper echelons of society, as one had the privilege not to have to work under the sun. This ideology subconsciously lives on in many Asian communities till today. 

When I was a child, the several hours I spent under the sun while I attended swimming lessons tanned my skin into a darker tone. At school, I constantly felt like a fish out of water. I was envious of my friends’ fairer skin which earned praises from parents and teachers, for it was the beautiful skin colour. Having internalised that my skin made me ugly, soon enough, I discovered the universe of beauty products, and in turn, the world of skin-whitening makeup.

 The desire to bleach one’s skin is much more than a beauty standard; skin colour is how society views you and determines your value. Rondilla deduced that the fairer your skin, the greater your net worth is. Better job prospects, income, education opportunities, and of course, a greater likelihood of marriage. This type of discrimination is coined as Colourism: a form of prejudice among members of the same race when people are treated differently because of their skin colour.

Colourism is deeply ingrained in various Asian communities, evidently fuelling the skin-brightening industry with demand for skin-whitening products. Today, the industry is worth USD13 billion in the Asia Pacific. Labels and brands are only adding fuel to the fire. “Fair and lovely”, “White beauty”, “No.1 whitening cream for men” are among the plethora of phrases printed onto skin-whitening products that perpetually engrains Colourism in Asian communities.

Asia’s skin-brightening industry has been left unregulated for far too long. The National Health Service has proven that most skin-whitening products are toxic to the body, harbouring side effects such as poisoning, organ failure, and cancer. In the Philippines, people are head over heels for the “Cinderella Drip”, for it claims to lighten skin from the inside out but bears a price tag of USD190 per session. Moreover, the Indian skin-whitening—which includes creams, face washes, and even vaginal whiteners—is estimated to be worth USD3.6 billion and counting, still growing at a steady pace. 

You can find hundreds of video footage on social media documenting the adverse side effects of skin-whitening products. Men, women, and children—covered in rashes and skin ulcers; some even ending up in hospitals. The compulsion to lighten one’s skin is so intense that people all across the globe are risking their lives to become a few shades lighter.

Fortunately, after beauty companies faced backlash regarding the association of their products with Colourism, they attempted to remove all references of ‘lightening’ and ‘brightening’ from their skin-whitening products. The Indian skin-whitening brand “Fair and Lovely” has changed its name to “Glow and Lovely”. L’Oréal has removed the words ‘white’, ‘fair’, and ‘light’ from all its product labels. These changes are a commendable first step to diminishing the societal pressure to bleach one’s skin. Though it may seem like there is light at the end of the tunnel, will a simple name change be adequate in eradicating centuries of Colourism? 

Beauty companies must adopt the much-needed step of removing all their beauty products containing skin-bleaching chemicals from their retail stores. If beauty products are built upon, utilise, and perpetuate Colourism, commercialising them continues the vicious cycle. Hence, reformulating beauty products prevents the propagation of Colouristic sentiments onto consumers.

Beauty products should celebrate one’s natural skin colour, and promote the message that beauty is more than just the darkness of your skin. Businesses bear the responsibility of creating an equitable society that does not tolerate Colourism. Halting the sales of skin-whitening products will indeed see a ripple effect in Asian communities, making more people question the notion that ‘lighter skin is beauty’.

The notion of bleaching skin is more than vanity. It is an old, outdated way to become someone ‘rich, successful, and famous’. Hopefully, one day, we can realise that beauty is more than just skin deep.

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