A lot of Americans want to lighten their skin.
Skin lightening, also called whitening or bleaching, is a multibillion-dollar industry with products that can damage the skin and that, researchers say, promote a dangerous message about beauty and social value. But people who use these products — primarily marketed to women — seldom understand the health risks of using the over-the-counter chemicals, Northwestern University researchers found in a study recently published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.
The researchers surveyed hundreds of people, a majority of them Black women. Many of the respondents reported using skin lightening products, with a portion admitting that they didn’t know the products contained harmful ingredients like hydroquinone, which can cause skin rashes, swelling, discoloration and more.
“The vast majority of times, skin lightening is really used with the goal of treating a medical dermatological disease or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentations,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Roopal Kundu, founder and director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair. “But sometimes it is used in the space of wanting lighter skin and the constructs of beauty compounded by light and dark skin.”
“We’ve done other work in that space trying to understand why people might use these products,” she continued. “It gets back to lighter skin being more aesthetic or considered something of value among certain communities. This is centuries in the making, generations in the making.”
Respondents who used skin lighteners reported experiencing colorism in their lives. Colorism, or color bias, is a system of inequality in which lighter skin on nonwhite people is considered more beautiful, socially acceptable and deserving of privileges often denied to people with darker skin. Black men with light skin are perceived to have more education than those with dark skin, and skin tone plays a role when job applicants with dark skin compete with light-skinned applicants.
Meanwhile, Black people with darker skin face harsher prison sentences than those with light skin, according to research published by the University of Chicago. And Northwestern’s recent study highlights the health disparities for nonwhite, dark-skinned people.
Although colorism is pervasive among Black Americans, such bias is a global issue and exists across nationalities and ethnicities. It has persisted in India for centuries as a result of casteism and colonialism, and in a 2021 Pew Research Center poll of Latinos, several said they face discrimination and barriers to upward mobility as a result of having dark skin. In Hollywood, starring roles tend to go to light-skinned actors over dark ones.
National conversations about colorism have cropped up in recent years, with actors like Zoe Saldaña and musicians like Beyoncé and Ice Spice facing backlash for benefiting from colorism in the entertainment industry.
“The one common denominator that I can point to: We’re all dominated by Eurocentric power structures, which define our ideals,” said Ronald Hall, a Michigan State University professor who has written several articles and books on colorism, including "Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Colorism" and "The Historical Globalization of Colorism."
“Whiteness has been idealized. People of color don’t think about that. They just buy into expressing those ideals,” he said.
Both Kundu and Hall agree that, because whiteness is linked to social value and upward mobility, people are often willing to take great risks to obtain lighter skin. The skin lightening industry has faced criticism for years, especially as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers as recently as last year about the dangers of illegally marketed, over-the-counter lightening products. These products often contain toxic ingredients and can cause permanent damage if used for long periods of time, Kundu said. Still, these ingredients remain widely available in products sold in stores, online and through social media.
Hall said the first step in eradicating colorism and its consequences is to adequately confront the problem.
“This is an issue that every African American, every person of color knows and experiences,” said Hall, who will deliver the keynote address at the nation’s first-ever virtual Conference on Colorism. “But people don’t want to talk about it, they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. So that, in effect, really sustains it. Once you confront it, then you can act on it.”