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skin bleaching: how far would you go?

A better future, or a shorter one?

What would be your reaction if you're told that your career, your marital life, and the betterment of your future depends on a cream which costs less than one dollar? But what if you're told that the same cream can cause severe health problems like memory loss, liver damage, fatigue, kidney failure, dermatitis, ulcers, permanent blue-black discoloration, steroid acne and the list goes on. And that too only for under one dollar. So, which one is it? A promise for a better future or a slow death? Unfortunately, discrimination makes it easy for many to answer this question.

This is the reality of the most controversial yet the most booming business in the cosmetic industry. These skin whitening creams, pills and injections include toxic ingredients like mercury, hydroquinone, and corticosteroid. While corticosteroid is a prescription-only product in the UK, a prolonged use of hydroquinone and mercury can lead to mercury poisoning. The amount of hydroquinone and mercury found in these products exceeds the legal limit by about 42000 times (1 ppm). And yet this industry is worth around 4.8 billion USD (as of 2017) and is projected to grow to over 24 billion USD by 2027. The skin lightening business takes Asian and African countries by the storm and according to the World Health Organization (WHO) half the population of Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines and around 61% of India and 77% of Nigeria consumes these products. Due to their high levels of mercury, the trading and selling of these products is banned in most countries and is punishable by law. And yet, these products are illegally imported to countries around the world in large quantities.

Why do people still use skin lighteners?

So why is it that despite all these statistics available online and the extreme regulations against these products, people still find a way to sell them and consumers are still heavily inclined towards buying them. It is nothing more than “the still rampant darker skin stigma and rigid cultural perception that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty and personal success”. Some say that the outside rule in Asian countries for centuries has shaped beauty standards to prize pale skin. And obvious discrimination based on your skin color still exists not only in the educational institutions, job markets, but also when looking for a spouse. “Skin tone isn’t just about skin, it’s about class”, says Joanne Rondilla, Professor at San Jose State University, “everybody that uses these products are very clear about the economic benefits that far outweighs any risk”. In the 21st century, around seventy years after the end of colonialism, the majority of the population in countries like the Philippines and India have not yet been able to embrace their natural skin tones and their markets and homes are still flooded with products which cater to this dangerous obsession.

BLM and skin lightening

‘Black Lives Matter’, a recent anti-racism movement in the United States brought light to this issue and created a conversation in many Asian countries about skin lightening and colorism. Some major multinational companies even came forward and expressed their belief in inclusivity and further removed any references to "fair/fairness," "white/whitening" and "light/lightening" in any of their products. Some companies also said that they have been following the legal limits set for whitening chemicals by the government. But the problem does not end there, and discrimination still exists in the mindset of the society. What will it take for people to start accepting their unique and individual features or at least start considering the various health risks that the majority population undertake to look a certain way? And when will people start asking the question ‘Is fairer really even better?’

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