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Skin bleaching: What is behind unusual trend?


The term “Whiteness” was and still is considered as “pure” by many, and the lighter the better. Because lighter skin has always been associated with money and status, many people—mostly women— all around the globe, are obsessed with lighter skin through “skin bleaching,” no matter what the risks are.

The skin bleaching phenomenon has been persistent for centuries—originating in Europe—and can be found in various countries. In Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, someone of a White complexion was considered as noble, even aristocratic. Since the sun was always out, someone who was rich was able to afford to stay inside, while the poor people had to work in the fields. The same mentality existed in European aristocracy.

Queen Elizabeth I was said to be the pioneer of the 16th century skin lightening “trend,” by using a make-up base with lead in it that had to be mixed with vinegar, to whiten the skin.

Skin bleaching is loosely associated with the “colorism” that happened in the days of slavery. Light-skinned slaves, who were the product of interacial relationships, between slave masters and slaves, were favored and assigned to do lighter work in the house. It was believed that these persons were smarter and better looking due to their White traits, whereas dark-skinned slaves, who had to work in the field under the beaming sun received harsher treatment. This form of racism became so embedded in the Black community, that light-skinned Blacks got criticized by dark-skinned Blacks for not being “Black enough” or dark-skinned women were told, they were not beautiful enough.

According to the Association of Black Psychologists, “colorism” means “the preference for lighter skin” and can affect the self-esteem of an individual and the perception of beauty, as well as economic opportunities.”

However, many domestic Black women in the U.S., for instance, do not support the craze over skin bleaching, such as women in Jamaica. There is however a difference between “skin bleaching” and “skin lightening creams.” Many African-American women occasionally use “skin lightening” creams to eliminate dark spots and to even-out their skin tone.

Nevertheless, bleaching, as well as lightening creams are not without risk. The active ingredients found in skin bleaching creams, hydroquinone and corticosteroids – also known as hydrocortisone- as well as mercury can be cancerous, as well as cause other skin issues.

The possible side effects can include:

Skin irritation and inflammation (redness and swelling);

A burning or stinging sensation;

Itchy and flaky skin.

Longterm use can lead to:

Thinning of the skin;

Visible blood vessles in the skin;

Kidney, liver and nerve damage.

Former baseball slugger Sammy Sosa is perhaps the biggest name today to have undergone a form of skin bleaching. In 2013, Sosa appeared on Panama television with a drastically lighter complexion, although the former athlete’s “new face” was reportedly first spotted at the 2009 Latin Grammys in Las Vegas. Since then, baseball fans, sports commentators—and dermatologists—have spoken to what could have caused the skin condition. It turned out, it is all cosmetic. Sosa later told the Associated Press that he is not trying to look like the late Michael Jackson, nor is he suffering from a skin disorder.

“It’s bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin tone,” he told Univision’s “Premier Impacto” television show in 2009. “It’s a cream that I have, that I use to soften my skin, but has bleached me some. I’m not a racist. I live life happily.”

While many products are banned from being sold in the EU or the U.S., they can still be manufactured for export. It’s a booming business, which is projected to reach $31.2 billion by 2024, according to Global Industry Analysts reports in 2018.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea, reported to use skin lighteners in 2004.

Some countries show an even higher percentage: 59 percent in Togo, 35 percent in South Africa, 27 percent in Senegal and 25 percent in Mali.

“The skin-lightening phenomenon is a nuanced one,” Shingi Mtero, a lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa, who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching said. “Whiteness has been elevated and presented as a universal standard of progress. When people say it’s about Whiteness, it’s not necessarily to physically be White, it’s about wanting to access things White people have easy access to—privileges, economic and social status.”

According to author and science reporter for The Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam, who told the New York Times in 2010 that.

“Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected.”

Colorism is also an issue in India, where skin bleaching is popular as well.

The stigma and bias that involve darker skin to be inferior and the cultural perception that values a lighter skin tone to be the key to money and success, exist in different cultures.

According to an article written by Monisha Rajesh (2013) for The Guardian, “Indians are very racist. There is so much pressure that perpetuates this idea that fair is the ideal.”

In 2010, India’s whitening-cream market was worth $432 million, according to a report by market researchers ACNielsen, and was growing at 18 percent per year.

The WHO reported that, 61 percent of the dermatological market in India consists of skin lightening products. And although the market is widely catered to women, it has also attracted a lot of men. Many Bollywood stars admit using skin bleaching creams.

Jamaica is another place where skin bleaching is praised by men and women.

However, the colorism in Jamaica tends to come from men towards women, although many men bleach their skin as well. Jamaican dancehall rapper Grace Latoya Hamilton known professionally as Spice doesn’t see eye to eye with fellow rapper Vybz Kartel when it comes to skin bleaching. In her latest release “Black Hypocrisy” she tackles on the prejudice she’s dealing with from other Blacks, especially men who favor “Brown skin.” In the song, she shares her experience growing up.

In a VH1 interview she said, “she would reach further if the color of her skin was lighter” and that she “was made to feel inferior because society said brown girls look prettier.”

Vybz Kartel, whose birth name is Adidja Azim Palmeron compared skin bleaching to the tanning White people do, but has now stopped using the creams himself. He said he wanted to show off his tattoos, since they look better on lighter skin.