'Skin whitening' never left the beauty industry

From controversies around labor in fashion to plastic surgery trends, the "Better Beauty" series dives into the changing beauty industry.

'Skin whitening' never left the beauty industry

The beauty industry is huge — from cosmetics, to fashion, to surgery and more. That, of course, means there are also tons of heated debates when it comes to products and fashion.

First up, when shopping for skincare products, there are always buzz words like "brightening," "glowing" or maybe something that treats "dull" skin or "dark spots." Then there's the term "whitening."

Skin whitening or skin bleaching products are used to lighten the appearance of skin color and stop melanin production. The skin whitening industry alone is estimated at $8.8 billion in value, and it's expected to keep growing — with massive markets in South and East Asia, countries across Africa and in Latin America.

But in 2020, major companies in beauty faced a reckoning. Corporations like Unilever, L'Oreal and Johnson & Johnson took terms like "whitening" or "fair" off their labels.

But how much actually changed in the skin whitening market as a whole?

"The idea is, 'oh, selling skin whiteners is ridiculous; we would never do that in the United States,' right, versus when you go to a place like the Philippines or other parts in Asia," said Joanne Rondilla, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at San Jose State University. "I remember one of my interviewees said, 'You are not a skincare company unless you have a skin lightening product.'"

Rondilla has been researching colonial legacies and color-based discrimination for over a decade, with a focus on Philippine communities. She notes that "whiteness" has long been associated with higher social and economic class or attractiveness, and there are also both colonial and pre-colonial reasons for this.

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"Before colonization, there is a class distinction that's often marked by skin tone," she said. "So for example, if you are a person of higher class or higher wealth, you are not relegated to fieldwork. And so the idea was that people who are darker skinned are people who were of the labor class."

These associations with whiteness and higher class or desirability are at the heart of "colorism:" the preferential treatment (often of same-race people) based on skin color. Colorism is apparent throughout the beauty industry, from the choices of models for products to the range of colors available.

One of the most explicit examples of this can be seen in this controversial Nigerian ad for Nivea showing brighter skin as more "youthful" and beautiful. There's also an infamous ad for the brand Seoul Secret where Thai celebrity Cris Horwang says, "Just being white, you will win." That ad was removed hours after it was posted after getting such strong backlash.

These colorist associations are what drive the multi-billion dollar industry for skin whitening products, and this kind of messaging isn't just psychologically harmful; it can be physically toxic as well.

Many skin lightening or bleaching procedures around the globe are experimental or controversial — like injections of glutathione, which stops melanin production. It's not approved by the FDA in the U.S. but can be very popular overseas.

Whitening products are equally unregulated and even potentially fatal. One analysis from the Zero Mercury Working Group looked at nearly 300 products across online retailers like Amazon, eBay and AliExpress. Nearly half had mercury levels above 1 parts per million, the international legal limit.

In 2019, a California woman who used mercury-contaminated skin lightening products fell into a coma, becoming the first reported case of methylmercury poisoning from a skin cream in the U.S.

"I think people are aware of risks that are associated with especially skin whitening that actually have things like mercury, hydroquinone and products like this," said Amina Mire, author of "Wellness in Whiteness."

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Mire has been researching the skin whitening industry and "anti-aging" with degrees in both sociology and chemistry. She warns that for individual consumers trying to navigate the different terms on labels, skincare can be a bit of a minefield.

"When it comes to the high-end things that are from premium outlets, they feel that they are buying not the bad stuff but the good stuff," Mire said.

Even though some toxic ingredients are banned and terminology has changed, skin whitening is still hugely pervasive in the U.S., just under different names, and the market for brightening products have only been growing with different beauty trends, like "clean" make-up looks and "science-backed" skincare.

"Look at the marketing: skin whitening to white women in terms of anti-aging. Look at how the aging white woman is promulgated in terms of hyperpigmentation, age spots," Mire said. "So many metaphors and adjectives that are associated with whiteness, with purity, with health, with order, with femininity, you know, because whiteness has all these other terms that you can use without ever mentioning whiteness."

Of course, not everyone who use skin whitening products are just trying to make their complexion paler. Whitening ingredients can also be used for scar or dark spot treatment or skin conditions ranging from vitiligo to acne, as dermatologist Dr. Dina Strachan explains.

"Acne is the most common skin condition," she said. "In people with darker skin, they often get post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, so they want to get rid of those spots. As long as you are kind of having the intention that the product was meant for, you should be okay. It just becomes a problem more with when people are just trying to maintain a lighter complexion overall that is not their natural color where it becomes a little more problematic."

Despite the supposed "racial reckoning" of beauty brands, the skin whitening industry hasn't slowed down. In fact it's projected to keep growing. Changing a few labels could only ever make a small dent in a billion-dollar global industry — one that has hundreds of years of historical context behind it.

But consumers are becoming more aware of the risks with skin whitening and bleaching, from harmful products and procedures to the harmful racial implications behind it. The only question that remains is whether consumers will choose their products mindfully, especially as the industry continues changing its terminology.