Do you use skin lighteners?

Skin lightening is an emotive and divisive topic, says Steve Garner, who is running a research project at the Open University, that’s attempting to lift the lid on skin lightening in England

The practice of making one’s skin lighter with cosmetics has existed for centuries. Is it skin whitening, skin lightening or, as contemporary marketers prefer, ‘skin brightening’? Some commentators are less charitable and call it ‘skin bleaching’.

It’s an emotive and divisive topic. On one hand, how you change your appearance is an individual consumer choice; skin lightening is one option in a portfolio including a variety of hair products and cosmetic surgery. On the other, this is never just about individuals, but group ideas about what beauty is, and what success looks like. And if beauty looks like pale-skinned Europeans, what does that say about the majority of the world, who don’t fall into that category? Is skin lightening a mass attempt to become white; a serious hangover from the colonial era; or just making yourself the best you can be in preparation for the competitive ‘markets’ around employment and marriage, for example? Moreover, it is women who account for virtually all the use of skin lightening products, although targeting men is a relatively new marketing ploy.

But what’s going on in this country? A research project based at the Open University is attempting to lift the lid on skin lightening in England. Although academic interest in the subject is growing, there is a distinct pattern to observe. First, the focus is mainly on Asian and African countries, with few exceptions, and nothing on Britain. Second, the medical specialists and the social scientists research and write in separate places, for separate audiences with different priorities. It has been long established by public health dermatologists that some ingredients of products are toxic, and have a long list of negative impacts on the body. Some elements are even illegal in the EU and heavily restricted in the USA for example. However, practical regulation of this industry falls on the shoulders of Trading Standards officers working for increasingly under-funded local authorities.

Products manufactured abroad containing mercury and / or hydroquinone can be found in English shops, while air travel and the internet makes purchasing them for use in England simple. No serious survey had yet taken place here regarding what products are used, how they are used and the associated spending patterns. This is why I applied for funding from the British Academy to do a pilot study. Now based at Birmingham City University, I am still a Visiting Researcher at the Open University. With my research assistant, Somia Bibi, a PhD student at Warwick University, I have been accumulating data since 2014.

Our definition of skin lightening covers whatever our respondents tell us: ranging from the uses of pale foundations, through under-the-counter products, to top-end high street cosmetics and in some cases, injections. People also ‘mix their own’. The project seeks to make the first step toward discovering what people do: how much they spend; on what; and how they use the products. This is the beginning of a proper conversation about what many see as a taboo subject or feel ashamed to talk about.

It’s important to recognise that the manufacture, marketing and distribution of skin-lightening products is a huge global industry with characteristics similar to many others. A few enormous corporations control the market from European and North American bases, with a variety of smaller companies based elsewhere. There are top-end and bottom-end products; relatively regulated and unregulated markets, and there is a clear division of labour. Manufacturing of the cheaper products takes place in developing world countries, while expensive products are made in Europe and North America, along with marketing, which is often customised by local offices to fit with different cultural norms. In the Indian subcontinent, Bollywood stars have acted in adverts aimed at encouraging both women and men to use certain products. It is the underlying message of marketing: darker skin is ugly, lighter skin is beautiful- that protestors object to. Others might argue that lighter skin gives you an advantage over someone equally qualified for a job, or when looking for a marriage partner in a culture that emphasises lightness as an attractive characteristic. It’s clear that skin lightening is as much about what is inside people’s heads as anything substantial. However, the financial profits are substantial enough.

So, is using product to even skin tone the same as bleaching to achieve overall lightening? Are some practices more dangerous than others? Why is this all about people with darker skin, while the same products are marketed toward white women as anti-ageing products, and while pale-skinned people use tanning to change their appearance? Are these even equivalents of one another? There are strongly-held opinions that this research hopes to capture in the next round, but the current pilot project ends formally on 8 February 2016, with an open seminar in Birmingham: click here for tickets.

We are conducting an online, totally anonymous survey and we need your help. Please help us by clicking on the link at the end of this piece. If you’re female, over eighteen and use any of these products, this survey is designed for you.

If you use skin lightening products and would like to contribute to the anonymous survey, please find the link here. Please note that this survey does not cover people who do not use the products.

Skin lightening survey

Steve Garner is Head of Sociology & Criminology at Birmingham City University (and a Visiting Researcher at the The Open University). He specialises in work on identity: race, class, nation and gender.



1 Comment

  1. by blue on 08/05/2016  11:39 AM Reply

    Really this topic again! As a black woman lack of credibility that is thrust on to us by our biology is the root cause of all this ``adapting to your enviroment stuff'' black women were pitched against our lighter skinned sistas. She lived/lives in the big house/She was/is courted not taken/She could/is/can protect her children (no one took/takes/taken her children and sold them or killed/killing/can kill them) And she never sat/sits back and watched/watches/ watching/endured the breaking down of her menfolk........We are viewed with suspicion as we are capable of nothing .....and everything....TRY AND LIVE WITHOUT CREDIBILITY........SOUL DESTROYING......400 hundred years and then some.....and some......and then some more.....DIAGNOSIS---POST TRAUMATIC STRESS SYNDROME. If you compared the black community and the Jewish community there a lot of similarities' a lot of Jewish people after the Second World War hid anything that could identify them as survive
    This skin lightening issue is a `symptom'' not a catalyst .....unless the cause is addressed

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