Poisonous beauty: behind the fight to curb skin lightening creams
For centuries, human beings have endangered body and mind in pursuit of the toxic fallacy that pale skin represents the highest form of beauty.
The often-deadly bleaching agent white lead was a perennial favorite in Europe from the time of the Ancient Greeks. Enslaved Africans in British colonies in the 18th century used caustic cashew oil to achieve a paler complexion. The Victorian English, meanwhile, favored arsenic wafers. And recent evidence suggests the Chinese, too, were using lead in cosmetics as far back as 800 BCE.
Today’s skin-bleaching creams and lotions often contain mercury, a toxic metal that accumulates in water and can cause serious harm to the nervous, digestive and immune systems, organs, and eyes of all living things. Many also include hydroquinone, a derivative of the carcinogen benzene that is banned in many countries. In high concentrations, hydroquinone can lead to, among other side effects, organ malfunction, blood poisoning, nausea, abdominal pain, and convulsions.
Despite the risks, skin bleaching is increasingly widespread across the globe, particularly in former European colonies where fairer skinned people are often seen as of a higher social station and more attractive to potential romantic partners and employers. There is even a conviction in some parts of the world that success in politics can be affected by the color of an individual’s skin.
While the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global agreement to protect human and planetary health from the toxic metal, has banned creams and lotions that contain more than 1mg/1kg (i.e., one part per million) of mercury, preparations with far higher levels are widely available for purchase over the counter or over the Internet.
This is why the Global Environment Facility is funding a major push by Gabon, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka to curb the import and production of these products, and to crush the pernicious belief that paler is better.
At the project’s kickoff at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Amira Adawe, Founder and Executive Director of the Minnesota-based Beautywell Project and committed campaigner against colorism, said she had been dismayed during her travels in rural East Africa to witness what women will do without to have lighter skin.
“They don’t have corner stores, but they have stores that sell skin-lightening products,” said Adawe. “They don’t even have access to water, they don’t even have access to food, but they have access to skin-lightening products. And they’re buying all these skin lightening products that contain mercury, hydroquinone, and steroids.”
Led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in conjunction with the WHO and Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), the project Eliminating mercury skin lightening products will work on multiple fronts to banish the toxin from cosmetics and to raise awareness of its risks to human and planetary health.
Importantly, it will also explore ways to banish the pernicious idea – one perpetuated by advertising and the media – that paler is somehow better by offering proof that all complexions are lovely.
The perception that lighter-skinned individuals are more likely to win at life, work, and love is so prevalent that many people will trade a great deal to achieve it, Bhavna Shamasunder, faculty in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department and Co-Chair of the Public Health program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who is researching what impels immigrant communities in the United States to use bleaching preparations.
“We have a racialized economic system where we reward people with lighter skin,” she told the Geneva meeting. “Sometimes the drawbacks are ones that they’ll just take, as a part of the exchange.”
During the three-year initiative, Jamaica, Gabon, and Sri Lanka will work to reshape policies governing the cosmetics sector so they align with global best practice. Efforts will also go into strengthening regulations and developing tools and strategies that will make monitoring and policing more effective.
Promoted in Songs, Carried in Suitcases
According to a 2018 nationwide poll on health and lifestyle, 11 percent of Jamaicans – or roughly 300,000 of the island nation’s 2.8 million inhabitants – have used skin whitening products.
“In Jamaica, when something hits popular culture – when it gets into our music – you know that it is recognized, that it is an issue. And there are songs now about the use of what we refer to in Jamaica as bleaching creams,” Heather Brown, National Coordinator of Dermatological Services and Leprosy Control at Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness, told the Geneva meeting.
Mouhamed Bakary Ozavino of the Gabon Ministry of Health said a vast number of people across Central Africa use such products. And while most are women, usage among men is increasing.
He said Gabon faces challenges policing the inflow of products from neighboring Cameroon, Nigeria, and Côte d'Ivoire, and lacks the laboratory capacity for testing. There is also a lack of national data that would offer a clear idea of the prevalence of usage.
In Sri Lanka, the sale of imported and domestically produced skin whitening products is extensive, said H.S. Premachandra, Director of the Western Provincial Office of Sri Lanka’s Central Environmental Authority, adding that the media and entertainment industries stoke the desire for lighter skin, with marketing efforts often explicitly targeting darker-skinned women.
As in many island nations, Sri Lanka faces stiff challenges in its quest to reduce imports. Not only can consumers freely buy preparations over the Internet from countries where there are few regulations, overstretched border officials have a hard time spotting what are often small quantities of illegal lightening products stashed in luggage.
Tests carried out by the Centre for Environmental Justice on 46 skin whitening products available in Sri Lanka found that 25 contained mercury levels ranging from 0.06 to 30,137.66 parts per million (ppm). Most were imported, mainly from China. There were high levels in some locally produced creams as well. Of five tested in the study, two were found to have mercury above permissible levels.
A Growing Global Industry
Across the world, skin whitening is a big business. In 2020, women and men across the planet bought $8 billion of lotions and creams that promised to make their complexions paler, or to banish freckles, blemishes, age spots, or acne. Sales are seen rising by nearly 50 percent by 2026 to $11.8 billion.
The roots of the paler-is-better misconception are as varied as they are deep. In Europe, whiter skin was seen as a proof of wealth since it showed its possessor could afford to leave outdoor labor to others. In Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the desire for paler skin is often seen as stemming from colonialism, reinforced by images in the media.
“European standards of beauty are perpetuated in advertisements for beauty products. And of course you can’t help but notice that even in beauty pageants, the people who do well are often those who are fairer-complexioned,” said Brown.
Skin whitening creams work by inhibiting the formation of the pigment melanin. Unfortunately, they can also wreak havoc on the health of the wearer, causing rashes, discoloration, scarring, damage to the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as anxiety and depression.
Despite efforts by signatories to the Minamata Convention to curb mercury levels in cosmetics, such products are still all too easy to buy online. Of 271 sold by more than 40 online platforms from 2020-2022, tests by the Zero Mercury Working Group found 129 - or nearly 48 percent - had mercury levels higher than 1 ppm.
Mercury-containing creams don’t just endanger those who use them: family members can breathe in fumes or come in content with mercury-containing products, babies can be exposed through breastmilk, and food chains can become contaminated when cosmetics enter wastewater.
Battling on Multiple Fronts
Governments in the project’s three target countries will focus on educating manufacturers, traders, distributors, and industry bodies responsible for enforcement about the tenets of the Minamata Convention and the dangers mercury poses to people and the planet.
Importantly, the three target nations will also raise awareness about the dangers of mercury and to show residents that all skin colors are beautiful. This effort to change minds will employ the voices of influential figures as well as health professionals.
Taken together, the countries’ combined efforts are expected to cut mercury usage by a total of 2.9 tons per year.
Nor will the successes in Sri Lanka, Gabon, and Jamaica be confined within their borders. A core goal of the initiative is to spread the word far and wide in hopes of inspiring others to join the fight against mercury usage and toxic beauty myths.