For many years, skin bleaching has become popular among many African and Caribbean countries. Though some countries have banned the distribution of skin bleaching products, many people are still desperate to achieve that lighter complexion.

Skin bleaching with dangerous chemicals is extremely harmful.
Skin bleaching with dangerous chemicals is extremely harmful.
jurien huggins/Unsplash

“The skin lightening industry is one of the fastest-growing beauty industries worldwide and is estimated to be worth US$ 31.2 billion by 2024.”

World Health Organization

Skin bleaching, or skin lightening, can be defined as chemically altering the melanin in the skin to develop a lighter complexion. Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, eyes, and hair its color, but when skin bleaching is used, the production of melanin can be reduced slightly or drastically in most cases.

Many women and men have adopted this technique with the presumption that lighter skin looks better than darker skin. In reality, this ‘popular’ notion has led to people putting dangerous products on their skin that do more than just alter skin color.

Arsenic Complexion Wafers 1896.
Arsenic was a staple to achieve the perfect skin complexion.
Arsenic Complexion Wafers 1896: Arsenic was a staple to achieve the perfect skin complexion.
Image by Nesster from Flickr

In the late 19th century of Victorian England, women were introduced to arsenic: a poisonous chemical element found in many minerals. Their beauty routine involved not only using dangerous arsenic, but mercury to achieve a clear complexion of pale looking skin. These women also incorporated arsenical lotion, powders, and soap to be applied to the skin, along with consuming arsenic wafers.

Arsenic wafers would be taken like a regular daily vitamin, with the promises of being ‘absolutely safe and harmless.’ Instead, women were slowly poisoning themselves. Although arsenic may no longer be a component in skin bleaching today, mercury continues to be an issue, because it’s a chemical element that is harmful if it gets inside the body. WHO details, “Mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.”

WHO also found that the Zero Mercury Group conducted a study in 2017-2018 by collecting 338 skin lightening samples from 22 countries. 34 creams had high levels of mercury- above 1ppm (parts per million) in 7 countries. The levels of mercury in the skin bleaching products found ranged from 93 ppm to over 16,000 ppm.

The dangerous use of mercury can lead to poisoning and symptoms include:

  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nervousness
  • Muscle switching
  • Memory loss
  • Numbness
  • Kidney failure

Skin bleaching can also lead to:

  • Nephrotic Syndrome: A kidney disorder that forces the body to expel too much protein in the urine.
  • Dermatitis: Skin inflammation that starts off with itchiness and a rash to the skin.
  • Exogenous Ochronosis: A skin disorder that creates blue-black pigmentation resulting in long term use of skin lightening or bleaching products containing hydroquinone.
  • Steroid Acne: A side effect of steroid use. This happens when corticosteroids are presented in skin bleaching products.
Skin bleaching cream containing mercury.
Skin bleaching cream containing mercury.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Flickr

It’s important to note that African and Caribbean countries are not the only places that practice skin bleaching. It is well known in India, Asia, and here in the United States as well, where a lighter complexion has been praised for years. There’s even the draining issue of dark skin versus light skin within the black community that further highlights the problem of colorism. What makes matters worse, is having celebrities fully endorse and practice bleaching themselves.

Take Lil’ Kim for example: a prominent black female rapper in the entertainment industry. She once had a darker complexion before it drastically became lighter. She received backlash and criticism over the new look, but she has never verbally claimed to have bleached her skin. She did however confess to being insecure about herself in the industry in her early years because she received a lot of hate, along with feelings of not being wanted as a ‘regular black girl’ because guys would cheat on her with European-looking women.

Skin bleaching cream containing mercury.
Skin bleaching cream containing mercury.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Flickr

We also have Sammy Sosa: former professional baseball right fielder, whose complexion became lighter in color after retirement. During an interview with Univision, he admitted to using bleaching cream that lightened his skin color, but it was to help and soften the skin. He had been using the cream for a while, which eventually whitened his skin.

Society may continue to accuse well-known figures of skin bleaching but the topic continues to be a prevalent issue as dangerous skin bleaching and lightening products are still being sold. Thankfully, more countries, such as Rwanda and Ghana, among others have begun to take action by implanting laws that prohibit the sale of skin bleaching products that contain harmful chemicals.

Though the use of skin bleaching is a personal choice, there are safer and more reasonable ways to incorporate it into your skincare routine. When used responsibly, please note that benefits of bleaching or lightening may include:

  • Reducing the appearance of acne scars
  • Minimizing skin discoloration
  • Evening out skin tone

Understand that skin lightening treatment is meant for certain dark areas of the skin such as freckles, sun spots, age spots, acne scars, and other forms of discoloration. It’s not meant to be applied to the entire skin of the body.

When using dark spot correctors or general skin lightening treatment, make sure the ingredients are safe enough for your skin, take advantage of patch tests that are specifically meant for testing how your skin reacts to the treatment, and all in all check with your dermatologist just to be sure the skin lightening treatment works for you.

For those of us with darker skin tones, one thing to remember is that the color of our skin is beautiful. We should never have to subject to society’s beauty standards in regards to something as small as complexion. Always love yourself and appreciate your rich melanin.