Tanning has become ubiquitous in the western world, with both women and men frequenting tanning salons and resorts or using bronzing creams for a sun-kissed glow. But elsewhere in the world—especially in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean—women and men covet a paler complexion, which abets the dangerous practice of skin bleaching. The trend is gaining traction here: several ethnic-import stores around the city sell creams and soaps that promise to whiten the skin, while some local naturopathic clinics offer skin-lightening injections—which range from $100 to $150, depending on the doses used—through repeated IV infusions of vitamin C and glutathione that provides a gradual full-body lightening. Effects begin about six weeks after the initial treatment, and maintenance injections may be used alongside oral supplements to keep that lighter skin tone.
Skin bleaching runs under various names depending on the region—skin whitening, skin toning and skin lightening—but generally describes the cosmetic application of topical ointments, gels, soaps and, in extreme cases, household chemicals (including the use of bleach and automotive battery acid) to physically lighten the skin. These products work by inhibiting the production of melanocytes, which reduces the concentration of melanin—the primary determinant of skin colour.
Skin bleaching is not new: early records of it can be traced back to the Elizabethan period in England, when aristocratic women would apply a cosmetic concoction called Venetian Ceruse (also known as Spirits of Saturn)—a mixture of white lead, lye and ammonia—over their bodies, or ingest arsenic wafers to maintain their snow-white complexion. At that time, physical whiteness displayed a person’s social and economic status, as it meant that the individual was wealthy enough to stay indoors all day—having dark skin meant that a person worked outside under the hot sun doing hard labour. Skin whitening remained popular for white women throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, but those ideals shifted during the Industrial Revolution when work for lower-class persons moved indoors, transforming their darker skin to a paler hue.
“It’s only within the last half-century that tanning has become socially acceptable as a form of leisure, because more people work indoors than work outside,” explains Michael MacDonald, a professor at MacEwan University who specializes in cultural studies research, with a focus on cultural esthetics and sustainability. “It’s only shifted within a certain class and within certain countries where most of the labour happens inside a room.”
In its current manifestation, tanned skin has become a symbol of leisure and status in the western world, as white skin once did in the Elizabethan era, MacDonald explains. Through colonization, white European ideals were spread to communities of colour where politics of colourism—discrimination based on skin colour—are played out, resulting in a hierarchy that sees lighter skin as more valuable, with greater access to power and privilege than darker skin.
“[Skin bleaching] further entrenches the politics of skin colour,” MacDonald says. “I think [skin bleaching] is a really good indication that we have not, in fact, entered a post-colonial period as far as beauty is concerned. We are still deeply impacted by European beauty values that are hundreds and hundreds of years old.”
Yaba Amgborale Blay, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, discusses the phenomenon of skin bleaching and its relationship to colonialism in her 2011 academic article, “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction.” “Colourism constructs a spectrum upon which individuals can circumnavigate the parameters of the white/non-white binary racial hierarchy by assigning and assuming colour privilege based upon [that] proximity to whiteness,” Blay writes. “In this context, the White ideal—pale skin, long, straight hair, and aquiline features—exacts prevailing and enduring influences on societal assessments of human value. Skin bleaching then represents one attempt to approximate the White ideal and consequently gain access to both the humanity and social status historically reserved for Whites.”
White European beauty ideals are deeply engrained and industrially supported by the fashion industry, MacDonald notes. The media appropriates light skin as standard by the lack of representation of dark-skinned persons on magazine covers, in advertisements and on runways. Even when a dark-skinned person is depicted, their skin tone is often “white-washed” by photo-editing programs to look much lighter than it actually is. Instances of this have been seen on the covers and spreads of fashion magazines including Elle (Gabourey Sidibe’s October 2010 cover, on which her naturally dark complexion was dramatically altered to a café au lait colour), Vogue UK (Rihanna’s November 2011 cover) and Vanity Fair (Lupita Nyong’o’s photo in the February 2014 “Vanities” section). The runways aren’t much better, either: during 2014’s Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week, 78.69 percent of models were white, as reported in a February 2014 Jezebel article. Only 985 of the 4621 looks presented during the shows were worn by models of colour, with 9.75 percent being black, 7.67 percent being Asian and 2.12 percent being Latina. In 2015, things didn’t really improve: 83 percent of models were white in 2015’s Spring/Summer New York Fashion Week.
“Society puts it into people’s minds that you have to be a certain [kind of] black, or be light-skinned, to be seen as beautiful,” says Naomi Velado, a student at the University of Alberta. “The light-skinned blacks are represented more than the dark-skinned ones in the media.”
Velado has a lighter complexion by birth due to her Ethiopian-Salvadoran ethnicity. Though she does not participate in the skin bleaching trend, Velado admits she chemically relaxed her hair as a child after being tormented by peers for having curly hair. Similar to nowadays, there was little representation of people like her in the media, and that impacted her greatly.
“I understand why someone might want to [skin bleach], but I don’t agree with it and the current procedures to achieve that lighter tone,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a solution to feeling pretty, because it’s more damaging than anything.”
Skin bleaching products can be expensive, which can lead to people buying them off the black market; these illegal products can be made with mercury and other toxic chemicals. Others will make their own concoctions, such as lathering household bleach all over the body and wrapping themselves in plastic wrap.
Many skin bleaching products for sale contain a chemical compound known as hydroquinone, which has been banned in countries such as Japan and Australia as it has been linked to cancer and organ system toxicity. In Canada, hydroquinone can be purchased over the counter in two-percent concentrations; four-percent concentrations can be bought with a doctor’s prescription. Health Canada classifies the chemical compound as a “medicinal ingredient,” which can be used to lighten hyperpigmentation such as age spots, liver spots or freckles. Authorized health products—products that have been assessed by Health Canada and are legally sellable—should have an eight-digit Drug Identification Number (DIN), a Natural Product Number (NPN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label. Interestingly, many of the whitening products in Edmonton’s specialty import stores do not contain these identification labels, suggesting they are not regulated through Health Canada. (This also goes against Health Canada’s policy that “all cosmetics sold in Canada must be safe to use and must not pose health risk.”)
“What is troubling is occassionally patients order injectable vials and other IV supplies online from retailers and try to administer it to themselves,” explains Dr Eric Muradov, a local naturopathic doctor whose clinic offers skin lightening services through IV injections of vitamin C and glutathione. “I strongly caution against this as the source, safety and efficacy of these products can never be authenticated.”
“In certain countries, there is unfortunately a lot of pressure for people to achieve lighter skin,” says Zaki Taher, a dermatologist at Lucere Dermatology & Laser Clinic. “The creams that are available without prescription in certain parts of the world have ingredients that can have catastrophic effects on the skin.”
At his clinic, Taher has seen patients whose prolonged use of high-potency steroids and high concentrations of hydroquinone, in an attempt to achieve lighter skin tones, has resulted in permanent skin thinning and exogenous ochronosis—a skin condition in which a bluish-black hyperpigmentation forms.
“The principle in the end that is most important is to love the skin you are in,” Taher explains. “I remind patients that all shades are beautiful and the pursuit of a more even skin tone is the goal—not necessarily lighter skin.”
Skin bleaching is a complicated practice with a complex history linked to colourism and colonization, and various motivations for engaging in it today. It’s also a source of widespread ignorance: just because we don’t often see the practice being discussed doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. There needs to be better representation and education of all individuals, especially in western media.
“This kind of education is foundational for a country that desires and strives towards multiculturalism,” MacDonald says. “You think that if you don’t talk about skin colour that it doesn’t exist? Ignoring differences doesn’t get rid of difference, it only hides inequality and maintains the white supremacy located in the esthetics of skin colour.”