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Throwing shade: Colourism and the skin lightening industry

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

The skin lightening industry is one of the most insidious forms of racial oppression alive today. It enforces beauty ideals that were built upon a painful colonial past and endorses a narrative that lighter skin equates to beauty. Though the dangers of many skin-lightening ingredients are now well established, years of systematic and structured enforcement of the notion that light-skin is the ‘right skin’ has made the skin lightening business a multibillion dollar industry, with consumers choosing to accept the risk of cancer and chronic disease over the risk of being considered dark. With global support for the ‘Black lives matter’, campaign being in full force, it’s time that we see the beginning of the end of this multi-billion dollar industry that is at the heart of the social injustice that is colourism.

The physical damage

There are two cardinal sins a person can commit when it comes to skin health and they both have to do with altering one’s natural skin colour. The first is the usage of high-intensity ultraviolet radiation directed straight onto the surface of the skin (tanning) and the second is bleaching of the skin. Both cause massive harm on a cellular and DNA-level to the health of the body and both greatly increase the risk of cancer and chronic disease. Ingredients used in skin-lightening products include hydroquinone, mercury and glutathione.

Hydroquinone inhibits the production of melanin. Whilst controlled use of hydroquinone (under dermatological supervision) on an area of hyperpigmentation is considered useful; there is no safe method to universally lighten the whole skin. Hydroquinone, structurally disrupts the epidermis (the top layer of skin), resulting in a reduction of skin thickness and integrity. It can also lead to a bluish discolouration of the skin called ochronosis and rebound pigmentation. Long-term use is associated with liver and nerve damage as well as cancer.

Mercury has long been known to be toxic to body. Accumulation of mercury occurs with prolonged use of skin-lightening products. This prolonged topical application of mercury has lead to chronic renal disease, psychosis, peripheral neuropathy and harm to the foetus if used during pregnancy.

Glutathione is an anti-oxidant that is now being administered intravenously for its supposed skin-lightening effects. There is a lack of evidence as to the efficacy of glutathione and its use is totally unregulated. Individuals having injections of glutathione into their veins for the purpose of skin lightening are at risk of unidentified substances being injected into the body and blood-borne infections.

The psychological damage

On a psychological level the harm is just as malignant. In many countries, darker skin is associated with negative characteristics and stereotypes that go far beyond the remit of beauty. To be lighter skinned is to be happier. To be lighter skinned is to be more successful. Constant promotion of a message that darker skin cannot acquire neither happiness nor success leads to a pathological need to be lighter even at the detriment to ones own health. On the 'fair and lovely' website, their skin-lightening products are marketed as a way for '[darker skinned] women to achieve their dreams, even if they were at odds with what society expected them to achieve.

American Journal of Sociology

Are things getting better?

I feel the conversation is changing amongst the black community. There is a lot more soliditary and positive promotion of darker-skin and black features than there has ever been. Social media is celebrating dark-skinned beauty and on film we are seeing many more dark-skinned actresses (and not just Lupita) with leading roles.

Michaela Cole lights up our screens in her leading role of BBC's: I may destroy you

Queen and Slim: Main roles played by two dark-skinned British actors: Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.

I fear that for individuals from Asian communities, not enough progress is being made on the conversation of colourism. Discussion with Asian colleagues reveals that for some, the importance of light skin goes much further than mere beauty; with colourism being deeply intertwined with the caste system. Even depictions of Indian gods are light-skinned and it's hard to create a dispute with divinity. Nina Davuluri, an activist of Indian decent who won the Miss America Beauty Pageant in 2014 has spoken out the pain of colourism. Despite being renowned worldwide for her beauty, her darker-skinned complexion, made headlines in India with many questioning whether she was ‘fair-enough’ to have earned the title.

And can you remember Anchal from America's Next Top Model? Despite being deemed as one of the most beautiful contestants to ever appear on ANTM, even she still clearly suffered from the trauma of being considered dark in her own community.

Are we making progress?

Every time a company endorses a skin-lightening product, they are endorsing a narrative that light skin equates to beauty and whilst change is happening, we have a long way to go. Johnson and Johnson made a huge step forward weeks ago by forgoing profits and cancelling their ‘Clear fairness line’. This is a massive step in the right direction and helps to dismantle the idea that lighter skin is better.

Other brands appear to be doing good work such as ‘Unilever’ who are renaming their ‘fair and lovely’ line to make sure branding does not contain the words, ‘ light’, ‘fair’ or ‘white’ though are not removing their products from the shelves. This is not progress in the right direction.

The renaming of 'fair and lovely’ is just reinforcing colourism under a different name and a more acceptable guise.

Dr Kemi Fabusiwa

In the UK, it is illegal to sell skin-lightening products. This has driven their use underground. Vulnerable, naive consumers are still able to access these products easily via the internet. This means that the use of these products remain high despite regulation being low.

What else still needs to be done?

Whilst better legislation can be put in place to prevent these products from being sold online and reaching the consumer; what is more important is challenging the standards of beauty that have led to their use in the first place. Choosing the right type of representation is the best way to challenge what it conventionally seen as beautiful and pave the way to accepting all skin colours as being worthy. If black is only considered beautiful or marketable when it is mixed with something else, then we're still a long way from where we need to be. Zoe Saldana who recently apologised for her casting of Nina Simone is a painful reminder of how the industry would rather paint light skin black, than accept the dark skin in the first place. This particular example was made considerably more painful given the activist role Nina played in highlighting the eurocentric standards of beauty that black women have to face. We love you Zoe. But sometimes, even black people need to do better.

One a side (but very important) note. If you're going to feature dark skin, hire beauticians and makeup artist who know how to work dark skin. As a medical student, I used to work as an extra in films. When it came to hair and makeup, no one ever knew what to do with me. I'll never forget the horror of being on set when one of the white hairstylists came after me with a fine-tooth comb, explaining how she knew all about Afro hair, as she had worked on the set of Desmond. I was left traumatised (as I'm sure were the cast of Desmond) when chunks of my hair came out in her hands. It's high time for black skin and hair to be taught at beauty school.


Are we ready to de-colonisalise our minds and put forward representation that highlights all beauty? We need to see dark-skinned Asian and black individuals being celebrated across platforms, with their black features highlighted, instead of covered up. Not just fleeting representation, but representation that is here to stay.

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