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How skin-lightening products continue to perpetuate racism and colourism in the beauty industry

Words by Sally Edwards

Does it really just come down to the choice of words?

The market for skin whitening and lightening products is worth billions, proving that commodity racism – a term that refers to the way in which racism and commodities inform each other – is still at play in our society. But after decades of criticism for its racist and colourist messaging, it seems that times could – finally – be changing. 

Put simply, skin whitening and lightening products work to reduce or suppress melanin biosynthesis and function. But, in the wake of the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests and the ensuing consumer-market reckoning, one of their biggest producers, Johnson & Johnson, finally called it quits on its skin whitening and lightening lines back in June. Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear’s Clear Fairness range now sit in the company’s growing pile of discontinued products. 

After Johnson & Johnson’s announcement, Unilever and L’Oréal followed suit, although neither quite matched the level of commitment shown by their precursor. Unilever declared a revamp of certain terms and names, particularly those in its Fair & Lovely range and L’Oréal promised to remove the words “white”, “fairness” and “light” from its products. Neither company committed to discontinuing skin-whitening products, only to remarketing them. Sure, it’s something, but is it enough? 

Words like “brightening” and “lightening” are emblazoned across product labels in most of our bathroom cabinets. The language is seemingly innocent enough when targeted at pigmentation, but history shows that the target can quickly become the entire face. For instance, pre its discontinuation, Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness brightening serum promised to “double skin’s whitening power for even-toned lasting translucent fairness”, while a commercial for the range straight up claimed to help you “whiten more thoroughly”.

These terms elevate colonial and White-aspiring beauty standards and are part of the social conditioning that implies that “White is right” or “White is beautiful”. The conventionally beautiful White or light-skinned woman with her big, toothy smile has been a trope of beauty campaigns for decades (albeit one that is slowly fading), conveying the idea that having bright and light-coloured skin equates to being a beautiful, desirable woman.

Instances of racist, colourist advertising abound in the world of skincare – in 2017, Dove published a Facebook ad for a body wash that showed a Black woman removing her shirt to reveal a cleansed White woman underneath, while in 2018, an ad for a Neutrogena cleanser showed a smiling, product-wielding blonde (Disney star Olivia Holt) exclaiming, “Go beyond clean. Purify.” The issue here is at once imperceptible and starkly clear.

The topic of skin purity has been fraught and painful for a long time because its roots lie in White supremacy. Language like “cleanliness” and “purity,” even in the context of skincare, isn’t really that innocuous, especially when coupled with the mainstay image of the flawless White woman. 

The messaging of these products and their accompanying adverts is part of a larger system of social conditioning – one that is entrenched in racism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Latin American countries had “blanqueamiento” or “whitening”, a state-sponsored “solution” to the large African-descendant population acquired from the transatlantic slave trade. It was enacted by marrying darker-skinned people with lighter-skinned people in order to produce lighter-skinned children and the damage it caused still permeates Latin culture today.

Of course, there are striking similarities in our own shameful history. Out of the Australian government’s Assimilation Policy came the Stolen Generation. The campaign, which ran between 1910 and 1970 and was based on White superiority, proposed that children who had both Aboriginal and White parents, due to their lighter skin colour, would be more easily assimilated into White society. 

Just as visions of White superiority pervade our global history, they pervade modern consumer culture, too. Skin-whitening and lightening products and their colourist messages aren’t only advertised in the Western world. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest markets for skin-lightening products. When Cameroonian pop star Dencia launched her controversial “dark spot remover” Whitenicious in 2014, it sold out within 24 hours, while the World Health Organisation estimates that 77 per cent of Nigerian women regularly use such products.

Over in Korea, the signature K-Beauty regime is still going strong. South Korea is a largely ethnically homogeneous country and one where ethnocentrism, colourism, and anti-Black racism are prevalent. The K-Beauty routine’s general function is to “brighten” the skin, but with many products containing vitamin C, arbutin and kojic acid, all “brightening” and “lightening” ingredients, it seems that achieving a lighter complexion is the goal for many Korean consumers. 

Not all reactions to Johnson & Johnson’s move have been positive. One woman commented, “Pure racism and sexism towards Asian women. Our rights as [an] ethnic minority are being infringed [upon]”. Others asserted “Her body her choice,” and “A disgrace. If people want to buy them, they have a right to do it.”

Yes, the choice to use skin-whitening and lightening products is a personal one, and certain products do have their place in the world of skincare. When used correctly and with guidance from a dermatologist, they can treat common skin issues and concerns like hyperpigmentation, aging spots, melasma and uneven skin tone. 

But unfortunately, the reality is that notions of a racially “pure” society continue to inform the contours of our consumer landscape today, particularly in the realms of beauty and fashion. It is our duty as consumers, and sustainable ones at that, to interrogate how these politics are promoted to us, and to understand how we internalise and project their oftentimes damaging, racist messaging.

Black and brown skin is not a concern or an issue to be fixed or altered, and if the beauty industry’s product lines can’t reflect this then they should, like Johnson & Johnson’s product ranges, be discontinued. 

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