Colorism fuels skin-lightening but users aren’t aware of dangers: study

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Many people using skin-lightening products are unaware of the harmful side effects, according to a new report.

Skin bleaching in the US is an expanding — and unregulated — industry, according to a new study published on Thursday in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, adding that it “not only poses risks to consumer health but also raises challenges to dermatologists.”

Researchers from Northwestern University surveyed 455 people — a majority of them black women.

Out of those who completed the questionnaire, 25% admitted they use products for general skin lightening, with 46% of them also reporting they don’t know the active ingredient in the products they use.

That’s an alarming stat considering some of these products are known to contain toxic substances, such as mercury, hydroquinone and steroids — all of which can have serious side effects.

“The vast majority of times, skin lightening is really used with the goal of treating a medical dermatological disease or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Roopal Kundu, the study’s lead author and founder of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair. “But sometimes it is used in the space of wanting lighter skin and the constructs of beauty compounded by light and dark skin.” 

Creams promising fairer and lighter skin are displayed on shelves, July 3, 2020, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Creams promising fairer and lighter skin are displayed on shelves, July 3, 2020, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Many respondents who used skin-lightening products admitted they’ve experienced colorism in their lives — which is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone.

The respondents who used skin-lightening products were also more likely to believe that lighter skin tones are more beautiful, increase one’s self-esteem and increase one’s chance of finding love.

“We’ve done other work in that space trying to understand why people might use these products,” Kundu, continued, as per NBC News. “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.”

Woman looking at self of beauty products
New York State recently bannned cosmetic products that contain mercury, a potentially dangerous chemical found in anti-aging and skin whitening creams.
AFP via Getty Images

In 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about the illegally marketed over-the-counter skin-lightening products which contain hydroquinone, an ingredient with serious side effects such as skin rashes, facial swelling and discoloration of skin.

The FDA reminded consumers there are no FDA-approved or otherwise legally marketed OTC skin-lightening products.

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