Public figures who use skin whiteners are copied by those who admire them and criticized by those who see this lightening as an affront to the darkest color, controversies that companies follow in order not to lose a business worth millions.
All over the world, but especially in Asia and Africa, the use of whitening creams is a relatively common practice that generates sales volumes of millions of dollars for the industry that produces them.
According to the North American company of world market research StategyR, the market for skin whiteners – which includes soaps, lotions, creams and pills – is expected to reach 8.8 billion dollars (8.3 billion euros) this year. ). In 2026, this value will reach 11.8 billion dollars (11.2 billion euros).
Most products (54.3%) are consumed in Asia/Pacific. In India alone, 54% of women assume that they have already resorted to these creams and 38% still do, according to the same market study.
The obsession with lighter skin in this country, where Bollywood movie stars have clear, shiny skin, has led some to resort to cheaper products, such as soaps containing mercury, which is a banned substance and poses serious risks to physical and mental health.
In 2020, the authority that regulates the medicine sector in Portugal (Infarmed) withdrew three products – soap, lotion and body cream – from the market because they contain mercury in their composition, with the suggestive name of ‘Fair & White’ (“Of course and White”)
Another ingredient banned in cosmetics, but used as a whitener, including in various product stores, in Lisbon, is hydroquinone, with a carcinogenic risk.
The use of these products in Portugal does not compare with what is recorded in India. Aware of the scale of this problem, the organization of Indian women fighting discriminatory practices Women Of Worth launched, in 2009, the campaign ‘Dark is Beautiful’ (“Dark is beautiful”), which aims to combat colorism, a discrimination in which people are treated differently based on social meanings linked to skin color.
These people suffer, according to Women Of Worth, discrimination based on skin color in criminal justice, business, economics, housing, healthcare, the media and politics in the United States of America (USA) and in Europe.
Lighter skin tones are seen as preferable in many countries in Africa, Asia and South America, according to the organization.
While they are followed and their whitening followed by fans, many public figures are criticized for resorting to this practice.
The most famous case is, without a doubt, that of Michael Jackson, but other stars have also been the face of lightening, such as Beyonce, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, or the Nigerian singer Dencia who used a lightening cream that she herself used all over her body. created, and sells, having been criticized for it on social networks.
The industry is not indifferent to the movements for and against the use of whiteners. In 2020, as the world watched anti-racism demonstrations in the US, following the death of George Floyd by a local police officer, the company L’Oréal announced that it would stop using the word “whitening” in all skin products.
At the same time, Unilever’s Indian branch also decided to rename one of its most famous whitening creams ‘Fair & Lovely’ to ‘Glow & Lovely’.
The photograph that illustrates the packaging of this cream, which is on sale in several stores in the center of Lisbon, although without the mandatory label in Portuguese, according to the rules that the legislation imposes for these products (Decree-Law n.º 296/ 98), is that of a woman with fair skin.
Women who whiten their skin risk their health for “a delusional western model”
Women who use skin whiteners are looking for “an ideal representation of the beauty that doesn’t exist”, redefined according to “an illusory Western model”, for which they risk their health, said the founder of an organization that warns of this dangerous practice.
Catherine Tetteh founded the Melanin Foundation, based in Switzerland, three decades ago, with the aim of combating the widespread use of skin whitening creams, after witnessing the harmful effects of this use on family members.
Despite recognizing that it is impossible to accurately assess the number of people who use these creams – some of which contain illegal substances, such as hydroquinone, sold illegally in the center of Lisbon – the cosmetologist and public health specialist advances with a prevalence between 25 to 75%, depending on the region of the world, as estimated by some scientific publications.
In written statements to the Lusa agency, Tetteh said that this is a problem that Western public health authorities “are aware of”.
“In some countries, the customs service organizes seizures of skin lightening creams,” he said. Paradoxically, he added, “the biggest manufacturers of depigmenting products are found in Europe”.
According to Catherine Tetteh, the list of health risks that users of whitening creams face is long: Genetic mutation of the fetus, low birth weight, neonatal infections, miscarriage, skin cancer, liver cancer, damage to the nervous system. central nervous system, kidney failure, heart and bone problems, blindness, nervous breakdown, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, addiction.
Asked about the ends that, for these users, justify the means, the president of the Melanin Foundation said that these women – although there are also male consumers – “want to change their own appearance”.
“They seek to please and reflect a new image of themselves and an ideal representation of the beauty that does not exist”, he said.
He added: “Globalisation, the power of the media and advertising create the image of a universal standard of beauty, of a feminine beauty that has been redefined according to an illusory Western model.”
If, on the one hand, the media and awareness-raising campaigns can help to better inform populations about the dangers of voluntary skin depigmentation, along with educating young people for “a better representation of all skin tones”, on the other hand, another, and “unfortunately, the advance of aesthetic technologies has further democratized the practice”.
“Women no longer just apply creams, but now resort to pills, intravenous injections and lasers,” he lamented.
In the course of research that she has carried out for decades to help these women stop using skin lighteners, Catherine Tetteh discovered the extent of the problem and “especially the phenomenon of addiction”, which “makes it difficult for these women to stop using the products” .
From the work of the organization that created it, the participation in conferences and ‘workshops’ in the “five continents”, since 2000, stands out.
“We raise awareness, we inform and we are convinced that we will be able to change things, taking one step at a time”, he said.
Dermatologist warns of risks of banned substances in whitening cosmetics
The use of skin whiteners with substances such as hydroquinone, which is banned in cosmetics, increases the risk of cancer and, for that reason, only medicines can contain it, says an official from the Portuguese Society of Dermatology and Venereology.
Leonor Girão, responsible for the Portuguese cosmetic dermatology group at the Portuguese Society of Dermatology and Venereology (SPDV), told the Lusa agency that she was unaware of the indiscriminate use of whitening creams as cosmetics, without medical supervision.
In Lisbon, several stores that sell all kinds of products – from clothing to vegetables, including handicrafts and alcoholic beverages – also offer skin whiteners, namely creams, but also soaps and tonics.
Consumers essentially seek to obtain an image similar to the one illustrated on the packaging of these creams, of black women, but with a light and bright color.
Their goal is to resemble stars like Rihanna or Beyoncé, who used these products.
Although some of these creams do not contain dangerous products, some contain hydroquinone, which is prohibited in cosmetics, precisely because of its toxic power.
Leonor Girão explained that this substance, used in a certain amount, in products prescribed by doctors and sold in pharmacies, has the effect of minimizing acne marks or localized blemishes.
“Precisely because it is an effective substance, it began to be used to whiten the skin, by African and Asian women, who began to use it in large quantities, in a large area of skin surface”, he said.
But its indiscriminate use increases the risk of skin cancer, he warned, considering it “dangerous” to use creams with this type of products without medical supervision.
In Portugal, as in other European countries, hydroquinone is prohibited in cosmetic products, as defined in the European Cosmetic Regulation.
It is a substance that depigments the skin by reducing the formation of melanin, responsible for skin pigmentation.
Leonor Girão also said that the misuse of substances of this type can have other consequences, in addition to their carcinogenic potential, such as irritation, depigmentation in confetti (balls) or the appearance of more pigmentation.
“For this reason, it has to be used under medical supervision,” he added.
The dermatologist considered that the authorities have done “a good job” in controlling the quality of cosmetics, even transferring to the category of medication those that, due to their composition, carry risks and presuppose clinical surveillance.
“For some reason medicines have legislation, they are sold in pharmacies and controlled”, he said.