Despite the saying that ‘beauty is skin deep’, women are continually spending significant amounts of money on various cosmetic products. Some will even willingly put their health in perilous circumstances in the name of “beauty”. Case in point the skin bleaching phenomenon. Back in the Elizabethan times, women and men would strive to achieve a pale white complexion. This was considered a sign of both beauty and social standing. While every woman has the right to make choices about their personal appearance, skin bleaching to me has got to be the most distressing form of extreme beauty. Bleaching/ lightening is popular in many parts of the world including South Asia but medical experts now say that Africa is fast catching up with this ‘trend’.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in Nigeria alone in 2011, more than 60 million people were using skin lightening products on a regular basis. The concept behind skin bleaching is to acquire a better, smoother and lighter complexion because lighter skinned women are believed to be more beautiful and successful. Did you check out our article on colourism? (Click here) It is because of this social construct that women are resulting to using bleaching creams, and relying on harsh procedures to lighten their skin.
The difference between skin bleaching and lightening
According to the National Health Service website, contrary to popular belief, skin bleaching is also referred to as ‘skin lightening’. Skin brightening and bleaching are however NOT one and the same. Skin bleaching involves de-pigmenting the skin. The procedure works by reducing the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color and helps protect it from the sun.
Hydroquinone, cortisone (steroid medication) and in some cases illegal skin bleaching products such as mercury are used for this process. Bleaching is also done using creams, pills or injectables. These harmful substances are sometimes not listed transparently on product labels and are instead couched in the language of green-washing. Bleaching can cause serious side effects including:
- Thinning of the skin.
- Burning sensation of the skin.
- Itchy and flaky skin.
- Kidney, liver and nerve damage.
- Abnormalities in a new born baby (if used during pregnancy).
Skin lightening is often a treatment choice and less a matter of entirely changing the complexion you were born with. For the most part, it is used in moderation even by dermatologists to combat acne, hyper-pigmentation and scars. Skin lightening involves the use of anti-oxidants, vitamin C and glutathione injections. Skin lightening is not permanent and doesn’t affect the production of melanin. The reason the National Health Service (NHS) classifies skin lightening as bleaching is due to the increased demand of skin lightening products that have caused a surge in the market for sub-standard products.
For some reason skin lightening sounds less harsh that bleaching does. Much like an oxymoron; bleaching and skin lightening is pretty much one and the same thing. One is done in moderation and under supervision by a qualified medical personnel for the sake of addressing a specific skin concern. Meanwhile, the other (bleaching) is based on the idea of wanting to be ‘white’
Brightening or illuminating is the use of skincare products to add radiance to dry and dull looking skin in order to deliver a natural glow. Skin brightening products often come as exfoliators or serums. Anything that contains lactic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin C, kojic acid, or liquorice extract help to brighten and even out the skin with continued use. Skin brightening products are toxin free and safe to use. They are a safe bet for restoring the natural radiance of your skin. That and regular exfoliating are a much better solution than bleaching!
A lot of bleaching products are being labelled as skin lightening products in order to appear as a safe alternative. Skin lightening products have sufficiently contributed to Africa’s billion dollar beauty industry. It is actually heart-breaking that women of color are choosing to put themselves through these harmful procedures.
A woman is not her skin, nor is she the expectations set for her by society. This all comes back to a lack of self-esteem and self-love.
So how do we solve this seemingly ever-growing phenomenon? Recent black movements such as; #MelaninPopping and #BlackGirlMagic are hashtags aimed at celebrating black skin while trying to challenge the perception that people are perceived of having more value because of their complexion.
Perhaps, we should pose and redefine beauty for ourselves as women and look at beauty from both an intellectual and psychological point of view. This will encourage women to focus less on their physical appearance and understand the importance of inner beauty rather than what lies on the surface.