Lure of Fair Skin Pushes Many to Drastic Measures

In 2012 there were 240 brands of lightening creams available in India alone and according to Didier Villanueva, a manager for L’Oréal India, 60 to 65 percent of the women use the products on a daily basis. mmkarabella/

From Africa to Asia, fair skin is put on a pedestal.

The recent debut of Oprah Winfrey’s Light Girls highlights the harmful epidemic of skin lightening products that has been seen around the world. Women everywhere can be found desperately slathering on hazardous creams, soaking themselves in toxic bleach and injecting themselves with unregulated lightening concoctions all in hopes of achieving lighter skin, and in turn a better life.

The dangerous practices have become a daily beauty routine for many women and exposed our society’s obsession with a lighter complexion.

The practice of making skin appear whiter can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Egypt and Greece, where women would use white lead to paint their faces for cosmetic reasons. Other areas like East Asia had similar practices where Geishas would paint their faces pale white as a reflection of beauty and success. Now after centuries of slavery and colonialism the ideal beauty standard of white skin has been instilled in cultures everywhere making the obsession for whiter skin an epidemic perpetuated by a multi-billion dollar lightening industry.

Lightening creams are often prescribed by dermatologists for minor fixes like dark spots and freckles, but now they have been flourishing for strictly cosmetic reasons with brands like Clinque, Dior and L’Oreal joining the market. In countries with typically darker complexions, and especially in the continent of Africa, as well as Asia and the Middle East, women are using dangerous lightening creams as a part of their daily routine.

In 2012 there were 240 brands of lightening creams available in India alone and according to Didier Villanueva, a manager for L’Oréal India, 60 to 65 percent of the women use the products on a daily basis.

Overseas, many of the popular products are loosely regulated and contain harmful amounts of mercury, exposure to which can cause kidney damage and neurological disorders. In addition to mercury, the most harmful ingredient found in these products is Hydroquinone, a carcinogen that has been known to cause cancer, genetic mutations and diabetes.

As Ray Bouch, a trading standards officer at Lambeth council, tells the Guardian, even in countries like Europe, where the ingredients are regulated, creams are produced with illegal amounts of mercury and hydroquinone and exported to African countries, where they are then smuggled back and sold to the African immigrant population.

“When we prescribe hydroquinone to lighten dark areas on the skin we supervise patients and give them treatment over three months or less,” says Dr. Erin Gilbert, a dermatologist in Brooklyn, New York.

“A condition known as “ochronosis” which manifests as a blue-black darkening of the skin can occur with hydroquinone use. Patients using hydroquinones without supervision often use them for extended periods of time and are unaware that darkening of the skin is a potential side effect of this medication.”


Dr. David McDaniels, a dermatologist in Virginia Beach and a director of the Skin of Color Research Institute at Hampton University agrees that this harmful ingredient can cause negative effects on the user’s health.

“For ‘legitimate products’ in the United States, hydroqunione is very common.  My primary concern is with hydroqunione and toxicity to the skin’s pigment producing melanocyte cells. There can also be issues with reduced skin protection from UV light – especially if proper SPF use is not combined.”

In many countries, including the U.S., a black market for creams with prescription strength ingredients has emerged making them as easy to obtain as walking to your local beauty store or bodega. And, access to sites like ebay, which sells them, has made obtaining the harmful creams even easier.

“When sold over the counter in the U.S., hydroquinone is formulated at a 2 percent concentration. Illegally purchased versions can contain up to 8 percent hydroquinone,” says Dr. Gilbert who says he sees about five patients a year who have suffered the negative side effects of lightening creams.

“It is frustrating to know that if they had been properly educated about the potential side effects that the damage could have been prevented,” says Dr. Gilbert.

“I have encountered many patients using strong topical steroids that they have bought at beauty stores. Many of them are produced in India and Africa and imported and sold in the U.S. illegally.”

Unfortunately, because the lack of regulation and the popularity of the trend, many women who abuse the creams are unaware of the potential health risks.

As Dr. David McDaniel explains, “Probably the most common problems are short term irritation, dryness, redness (mostly from the hydroquinone but sometimes other products as well).  Other problems are the addition (often illegally) of high potency steroids to bleaching creams, this is more common overseas, but for example these products are available ‘on the street’ without a prescription. They can cause skin thinning, stretch marks and serious issues with your endocrine system.”

In addition to the negative effects on one’s body lighteners have also taken a toll on physiological health. In countries like India and Thailand, advertisements for skin lightening creams portray darker skinned women as unsuccessful and undesirable. Product names alone, including “Fair and Lovely” and “White Perfect” are sending harmful messages.

To combat these powerful and destructive messages, an organization in India called Women of Worth launched the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign and has petitioned for the removal of the discriminatory ads. Also, in late 2014, The Advertising Standards of India Council banned the use of ads that convey negative portrayals of dark-skinned people.

As Kavitha Emmanuel, the campaign director for Dark Is Beautiful told the Guardian, “Skin color bias affects people psychologically. It affects how a child performs in school because their confidence level goes down: they feel they are not good enough. And when it comes to marriage, we again find skin color plays such a vital role.”

Other products have evolved out of the skin lightening industry that includes pills and injections. A dangerous black market for these lightening injections has developed in countries like Kenya and Jamaica and with the new development of these products; it’s hard for anyone to know the long-term consequences.

Dr. McDaniel hopes that education on the harmful effects and regulation on these dangerous products will lessen the damage they will cause in the future.

“I actually believe on a practical basis the introduction of scientifically based, clinically tested and proven comeceutical products which are hydroquinone free has had the greatest impact for my patients,” says Dr. McDaniel. “Long-term more effective products such as these and increased public awareness will continue to improve the situation.  Whether the FDA will take regulatory actions to restrict or ban HQ remains to be seen, but that of course would have a profound impact.”