Why banning skin-whitening products is not enough

Previously, I wrote about why skin-whitening products are trash and why the companies that produce them are shady AF. To recap, many skin-whitening products are highly toxic; they can cause permanent skin damage, they can be carcinogenic, and can even cost lives. Companies that produce these products can therefore be seen as culpable of harming the health of people of colour, particularly in the Global South, where the sale of these products is most prevalent. Crucially, even when less active products are deemed ‘safe’, the marketing used to promote them is both toxic and far-reaching, affecting not only consumers, but also all those in the communities in which the company is operating, including children and other vulnerable groups. The prevailing message in skin-whitening advertising equates lighter skin to improved life prospects, confidence, happiness, and wealth. This serves to reinforce and perpetuate systemic racism and colourism in the societies these products are being sold. To be sure, colourism may outdate corporate advertising in many cultures, but surely this cannot be the ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’ for large multinational companies? I can’t be the only one to find it egregious that European, highly profitable companies sell and advertise skin-whitening products in former colonies.

So, what’s to be done?

While it is encouraging to see an increasing number of governments (among the most recent - the Ivory Coast and Ghana) taking action and banning skin-whitening products, this alone will not bring about the 180 on the practice of skin whitening many of us might want. Given the privileges afforded to people with lighter skin in so many countries, compounded with the persistent messages in the media and advertising that whiter = better/happier/wealthier/ more attractive, a ban is unlikely to be an effective remedy, at least not on its own.

Banning skin-whitening products without any further action to address the demand for these products may inadvertently lead to greater harm as people resort to the black market, where products are completely unregulated, erratic, and often far more toxic. Indeed, the presence of black markets for dangerous skin whitening products and services is thriving in countries as far flung as Kenya, Pakistan, and the UKConsequently, more action is needed on the part of policy makers, public health professionals, educators, and business practitioners to tackle the demand for skin-whitening products.

Consistency is critical. Government action banning the sale of skin-whitening products is undermined when advertising continues to tell people to aspire to lighter-coloured skin. For example, journalist Helene Cooper, writing for the New York Times in 2016, noted that the ban on skin whitening creams in Ghana hadn’t extended to removing the countless billboard advertisements on how to get "perfect white" skin. Regulation is undoubtedly required for all marketing communications that imply whiter/fairer = better, or that typecasts individuals based on skin colour or shade. Similarly, permitting discrimination or preferential treatment based on skin-shade ought to be reprehensible in employment law and practice. You cannot expect a person’s desire to lighten their skin to change when she is confronted with evidence suggesting that lighter-coloured skin is an important requirement in obtaining a prestigious job or positions of power.

Where the sale of skin-whitening products are still legal, a greater onus falls onto the collective responsibility of beauty brands, advertising agencies, and media channels for how they communicate about, or in the case of the media, give a platform for these products. Irrespective of government action however, it should go without saying that multinational companies who publicly promote their commitment to diversity, inclusion, women’s empowerment or even body confidence cannot sell or market whiteness through their products or casting decisions. Promoting whiteness is the absolute antithesis to these commitments and it wholly undermines any positive work that might be going on in this space. Companies that position themselves as good corporate citizens, should be (and increasingly are) held under greater public scrutiny. If companies truly want to be authentic in their commitments to diversity, inclusion, empowerment, and body confidence, they need to consider how they contribute to these issues both within and beyond their organisation. This includes everything from products sold, to recruitment, to marketing and communications. Virtual signalling or tokenism has never been and never will be enough.

In addition to government regulation and corporate responsibility, there is an urgent need for greater awareness, education, and research related to the physical, social and psychological dangers associated with the use of skin-whitening products, wherever these products are being sold, legally or otherwise. It is a veritable failing of public health professionals that the risks of skin whitening are not as widely known, understood, and discussed as the risks associated with UV exposure. Education about these products needs to reach all sectors of society, from the most vulnerable (e.g., children, the poor) to the most powerful (e.g., government / business leaders) who have the means to create change. More research is needed to better understand the unique impact using the products and mere exposure to skin whitening marketing has upon individuals’ physical and mental health. This will help guide and target prevention and intervention efforts. Importantly, as well as an emphasis on health, the link to racism, colourism and social economic status also needs to be clear in both education and research; skin whitening is a much of a social justice issue, as it is a health issue.

Ultimately, until we tackle the demand for whiter or fairer skin, banning skin-whitening products may simply feel like another closed door to the hope of upward social mobility, success and happiness. Policy makers, businesses and public health professionals all have their role to play in disrupting the harmful trend of skin whitening. 

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The Centre for Appearance Research has a podcast episode on skin colour, colourism and beauty ideals, available to listen here: https://soundcloud.com/appearance-matters/episode-17-the-colour-of-beauty

Harvard Public Health Incubator, the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention for Eating Disorders have a new teaching case on colourism, which is free to download here: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped/teaching-cases/coloring-the-narrative-how-to-use-storytelling-to-create-social-change-in-skin-tone-ideals/

Nadia Craddock is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), exploring whether big business can meaningfully foster and advocate for positive body image. She produces and co-hosts CAR's podcast, Appearance Matters, which covers all topics related to appearance and body image research. You can find her on Twitter @nadiac322 

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