Thousands of Americans want to lighten their skin.
For years, the use of topical skin-lightening – also known as skin-whitening or bleaching – has been the subject of controversy due to its links to health issues such as skin damage and its role in perpetuating colorism (skin-based discrimination).
But even with this knowledge, many Americans continue to seek ways to lighten their skin – and based on a new study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, this practice seems more prevalent among people of color.
So why exactly are people still using skin-lightening products? And what does this say about colorism in the U.S.?
Keep reading to find out.
What The Study Says
The study (conducted by Northwestern University researchers) surveyed 455 people, most of whom were Black women. Many respondents admitted to using a skin-lightening product (with almost 27% saying they use them to lighten skin).
Even more concerning was that over 45% of respondents admitted to being unaware of the skin-whitening ingredients present in their products – a knowledge gap that could have lasting health implications.
“There have been some studies that have found ingredients like mercury, which has this bleaching effect and that is literally toxic,” Dr. Roopal V. Kundu, the study’s lead author, informed Yahoo Life in a recent interview.
“That’s the type of concern we have when we just don’t know what might be in the products that individuals are using,” he added.
But Skin-Lightening Effects Are More Than Skin Deep
The study found that the majority of the individuals who used skin-lightening products thought highly of lighter skin tones than darker ones.
This isn’t really shocking considering that research shows colorism “affords unique advantages to lighter-skinned individuals because of their closer resemblance to Europeans and thus to the Eurocentric standards of beauty, morality, intellect, and status.
For instance, Black with light skin are perceived to have a better education than those with dark skin, and skin tone plays a significant role when job applicants with darker skin compete with light-skinned applicants.
Research published by the University of Chicago also shows that Black people with darker skin face harsher prison sentences than their light-skinned counterparts.
“We’ve done other work in that space trying to understand why people might use these products,” Dr. Kundu 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.”
So, What Is The Way Forward?
While the study’s finding might not be groundbreaking (others have identified the link between skin-lightening and colorism), it provides valuable metrics to evaluate colorism’s influence on behaviors – specifically regarding skin health.
“I think it just gave us a little bit more concrete knowledge of something that dermatologists have talked about,” Kundu said. “It is important to understand this potential influence of colorism as a physician or caretaker.”
Another dermatologist, Dr. Rachel Nazarian, said that while the numbers might be concerning, she hopes the research will encourage open conversations between dermatologists and patients regarding colorism’s role in their quests for lighter skin.
“It allows us to have a little bit of touch point on where we are as a culture, how we define beauty, and allows us to determine how we can improve,” she said.
But as Dr. Kundu pointed out, not every person looking to lighten their skin is consulting with a doctor prior, especially not a percentage equivalent to the numbers observed in the study.
“I’m not seeing a quarter of patients who want to use skin-lightening ingredients for general lightening. So that means that most of those individuals are doing it on their own,” he told Yahoo Life.
Why That Matters
Unregulated use of skin-lightening products, particularly those with toxic elements such as mercury and hydroquinone, can trigger numerous health issues, including skin thinning, loss of skin elasticity, and, even worse, skin cancer.
“This can be damaging for the overall health of the skin,” Dr. Nazarian added.
And while the study showed that the U.S. is doing OK compared to other parts of the world, Nazarian thinks there’s much room for improvement.
“That, to me, is like a challenge,” she continued. “While the amount of people using skin-lightening products in the U.S. is not fabulous, it could be worse.”
So, according to her, the responsible numbers (her included) should figure out a way to “get that number down over the next five years.”