The Search for the Perfect Skin Complexion
Skin lightening (also known as skin bleaching) is something that has been around for thousands of years and although some people do it for medical reasons, most do it for personal cosmetic reasons. People are aware of the side effects and the long-term effects, but they still choose to do it regardless of the consequences. The cosmetic use of chemicals to lighten the skin in the 21st century is primarily used by people of color however thousands of years ago was used by non-colored people. Why do people want to be lighter? What makes them think that the lighter they are, the better they look? What does society and the social norm have to do with this trend?
Skin Bleaching is when the skin complexion is lightened artificially by using lotions, creams, soaps, and even injections. The lightening products used are all different and are composed of different concoctions, but what they all have in common is that the chemicals used to create these products affect the Melanocytes cell, which produce Melanin (the pigment that gives human skin, hair and eyes their color), by decreasing the amount produced, causing the skin to become lighter.
The products used for beaching can have long term and irreversible effects on the user. They contain many different chemicals that are not recommended to be used on the skin. “The most commonly used ingredients for these skin bleaching products are hydroquinone, mercury, and a broad spectrum of the very potent corticosteroid (a group of steroid hormones produced in the adrenal cortex or made synthetically) preparations containing e.g. Betamethasone valerate and Clobetasol propionate.”(International Journal of Dermatology).
A majority of these skin bleaching and lightening compounds are banned from use in cosmetic products by the FDA. However, a majority of manufacturers continue to use them regardless, producing widely used products that can permanently damage a person’s skin. The only reason why these products are so obviously popular and available in open markets is because of the shameful belief that the lighter skin tone is somehow superior as compared to a darker complexion to some people.
Skin Lightening techniques can be traced all the way back to the Elizabethan age. During that time “Women were in search of what looked like porcelain skin” states Robin Henig in her article The Price of Perfection; Queen Elizabeth herself was no exception. The Queen amongst other women used a dangerous face paint called Ceruse (a concoction made up of vinegar and lead) and although it gave them the skin complexion desired, it also did a lot of damage to the face. The Queen used it so consistently that it made craters in her face and to cover them up she used “thicker layers of ceruse”. The added layers did their job and hid the imperfections but under it, bigger pits were created. It is said that with time the queens face “was so ravaged that she ordered all mirrors banned from the castle.”
What happened to the queen could have been a learning lesson to everyone and yet later on in the mid-1800s, women “upgraded” from painting their face with ceruse to drinking “whitening potions” made of vinegar, chalk or arsenic (which can be deadly even when taken in small portions). Face paint was thought to be “tacky” and this potion gave a “natural” porcelain look. Arsenic was not only used in the potion women drank, it was also used as “one of the base ingredients for Fowler’s Solution (a topical cream prescribed for teenage acne).” Fowler’s Solution dried up the pimples and as a side effect “gave a translucent tone to the skin.” Women noticed and did not hesitate to take advantage of the side effects the cream provided.
Here we are in the 21st century and people are still using the chemicals to lighten their skin. Although we are a lot more medically advanced than we were in the 1800s, the chemicals being used to create these bleaching products are still as deadly and dangerous as they were thousands of years ago. The use of these chemicals has become so popular in certain countries that the sale of the creams, lotions, and soaps have become illegal.
There is an on-going myth that is detrimental to society; growing up believing that “lighter is better” can really make people ashamed of their melanin and lead them to skin bleaching. It has been engraved into people’s minds that having lighter skin makes you superior or overall more beautiful. “In Nigeria, 77 percent of the country’s women use skin lightening agents, compared with 59 percent in Togo and 27 percent in Senegal” (Abraham). It has become so popular in these countries because women are ashamed of their natural skin complexion. We live in a world where ‘white is right’, and those not strong enough to oppose the majority crumble into weak wannabes, unable to ever blend with whites, but still feel rejected because they can’t change their biological parents.
What makes this issue worse is that as much as it is said that bleaching is bad, there are celebrities who have high platforms advertising these products and making people who follow them believe that there is a simple fix to their insecurities. Some celebrities do it for a quick buck or just use it themselves. Regardless of the promotion or not, they do not realize the message they are relaying to all of those who idolize them and their celebrity status. Michael Jackson the King of Pop, bleached his skin. Although it was for medical reasons, it is still argued that it was not. Sammy Sosa a famous baseball player did it, Vybz Kartel who is a famous rapper in Jamaica also bleached his skin and the list goes on. Many people blindly follow their idols and trends, and do not think about the harm that bleaching is causing them. They also forget to take into consideration the fact that if thing goes wrong (unlike a celebrity) they might not be able to afford the needed treatments.
Skin bleaching is something that has been going on for thousands of years and is a beauty technique that will most likely continue to haunt the future. Whether its bleaching your skin to look whiter, or stepping into the tanning bed to look darker, it seems like it is easier for someone to try to change their skin color than to actually deal with their insecurities and issues of self-hate. The search for the perfect skin complexation is a search that will never end and has no boundaries as to how far it will go, even if it means dying for it.
Henig, Robin. “The Price of Perfection.” Science Writers (Www.NASW.org), www.nasw.org/users/robinhenig/price_of_perfection.htm.
Mary Rose Abraham. (2015). Skin lightening: the dangerous obsession that’s worth billions.
Olumide, Yetunde & O Akinkugbe, Ayesha & Altraide, Dan & Tahir, Tidjani & Ahamefule, Ngozi & Ayanlowo, Shola & Onyekonwu, Chinwe & Essen, Nyomudim. (2008). Complications of chronic use of skin lightening cosmetics. International journal of dermatology. 47. 344-53.