When most people think about globalization, they picture the spread of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola throughout Asia, or the smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants in New York City. But a less commonly known facet of globalization is the spread of skin-lightening products throughout the Global South. During the past several decades, increasingly more women (and sometimes men) have experienced an intense desire to lighten their biological skin color. As women around the world have internalized a white, Western beauty ideal, skin-bleaching and skin-lightening products have become ubiquitous.
This trend can largely be attributed to the effects of colorism and colonialism as well as the efforts of multinational corporations to promote advertising campaigns that manipulate conventional perceptions of beauty for profit. Some of the most prominent pharmaceutical giants that market skin lightening products include Unilever (which owns Dove), L’Oreal, and Procter & Gamble (which owns Olay). All three of these are headquartered in the West and were founded by Western white men. Their most popular skin lightening products range from scrubs, creams, pills, and injections, which aim to slow down melanin production. One of Unilever’s most popular products, Fair & Lovely, dominates 80% of India’s “fairness” cream market.
In India, applying beauty products to lighten skin is extremely prevalent among men and women. The World Health Organization has found that skin lightening products account for 61% of the dermatological market in India.
Lighter skin is so desired because it’s seen as a signifier of beauty, upper-class status, and prestige. This widespread bias against darker skin lingers as a vestige of Britain’s colonial rule between the 1800s and the 1940s. During colonial times, British elites sought to condition the population to believe that lighter skin is a signifier of higher authority and superiority in order to maintain the status quo, which gave the British superior status.
The widespread desire for lighter skin among the Indian population is perpetuated by conventional portrayals of optimal beauty in the Indian media. For instance, the actors and actresses cast in Bollywood movies are commonly seen as paragons of Indian beauty. This has a disastrous effect on many Indians’ body image since actors and actresses tend to be drastically lighter than most of the Indian population, and they often explicitly endorse skin lightening products and appear in ads for these beauty products. Many Indian actors and actresses also have light green eyes in addition to their very fair skin.
However, green eyes are uncommon among the native Indian population; among those who do have green eyes, this trait can often be attributed to their relation to a British ancestor from whom they inherited the eye color. Multinational corporations seek to profit off of manufacturing insecurities related to skin color and eye color, regardless of the insidious effects this has on the population.
This problem has become rampant in Africa as well. In countless African countries, a large portion of women and men are applying skin bleaches to their skin out of a desire to transform their dark skin into a lighter shade, which is granted more prestige and perceived as more beautiful. The World Health Organization has reported that a substantial proportion of women frequently use skin bleaching or lightening products in Mali (25%), Nigeria (77%), Senegal (27%), South Africa (35%), and Togo (59%), to name only a few. These products usually contain highly hazardous chemicals, like hydroquinone, mercury, and often steroids, which have detrimental physical and mental effects when used frequently or sometimes after only one use.
For instance, hydroquinone has the effect of giving the skin a bluish or blackish discoloration when skin is exposed to UV radiation. The many skin bleaching or skin lightening products that contain mercury very easily lead to mercury poisoning even when applied sparingly. This causes compromised cognitive functions, tremors, debilitating headaches, etc. These products generally don’t have warning labels on them to inform the user of the presence of mercury in the product.
In China, the practice of applying skin whitening powders has been a tradition for centuries. Although their desire for lighter skin may not be a product of colonialism like it is in many other countries, experts agree that the preference for light skin has been co-opted and intensified by modern multinational corporations that peddle skin lighteners and promise to give one’s skin the appearance of a “porcelain doll.” The World Health Organization estimates based on extensive surveys among the Chinese population that around 40% of Chinese women use skin lightening products frequently.
As skin lightening products have proliferated around the world, efforts to ban them have followed. In fact, some skin-bleaching products that contained high levels of mercury were recently removed from Amazon. Amazon did this in response to a petition from The Beautywell Project, a non-profit founded by Amira Adawe, a Somali woman who has experienced the trauma of colorism firsthand. In addition to removing products from online stores, some advocates have fought to ban skin lightening products altogether. But many disagree with this approach because it doesn’t tackle the systemic colorism that drives women to use these products in the first place.
In many countries around the world, women lighten their skin not only for aesthetic reasons, but often for economic reasons. Because colorism is so prevalent, lighter skin gives women a major advantage in securing jobs and succeeding at work. Edward Ademolu of the University of Manchester describes colorism as “an intra-racial complexion-based hierarchy, that often affords societal, cultural, economic privileges and favoritism towards lighter-skinned people and discrimination against those with darker complexions.”
As long as darker skin creates economic and social obstacles for women, they will likely continue using skin-lightening products, even if they’re banned and they have to purchase them on the black market. According to CNN, “many view African women who bleach their skin as vain and irrational. However, the better job opportunities and elevated status that lighter skin may bring, paint a different picture — a picture of African women making an entirely rational, calculated, business-like decision.”
The corporations that peddle skin lightening products are well aware that colorism often determines economic status, and they greedily capitalize on this. Unilever has even had the audacity to claim that their product Fair & Lovely positively contributes to society by “fulfilling a social need.” As Unilever’s own research states, “90 per cent of Indian women want to use whiteners because it is aspirational, like losing weight. Fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up.”
Similarly, skin lightening is viewed as an economically savvy decision in South Korea, which is often described as the plastic surgery capital of the world. Many South Korean parents even encourage their children to undergo surgery both to ensure career success and to enhance their marriage prospects.
In our highly globalized and interconnected world, toxic ideas and products can be sold on a larger scale than ever. Although some argue that globalization benefits the Global South, the spread of colorism and skin-lightening products suggests that this may not be the case. As women in diverse areas of the world are sold Western ideals of beauty, they are also being sold dysphoria, and those who profit should be held accountable.