On a perilous path to achieving dubious beauty standards, skin lightening products have emerged as a popular solution, promising a brighter, more flawless complexion. However, the stark truth lurking behind these creams and lotions is deeply concerning. As potent chemicals are wreaking havoc on the user’s skin, the dangers associated with skin-bleaching cremes and products are real and alarming. In this article, we cut through the illusions and get straight to the heart of the matter— exposing the undeniable health risks and appalling side effects posed by skin-lightening cremes and highlighting ways forward to a healthier and happier life.
Skin-lightening and colourism
The desire to lighten skin is a global phenomenon. How could it become so widespread around the world? The root causes of this lie in colonialism and white supremacy. An American Sociological Society paper explains that: “To justify racial slavery, slave-holding interests espoused a white supremacist ideology which held that persons of African descent were innately inferior to whites. Whiteness became identified with all that is civilised, virtuous, and beautiful.” Still today, in many countries movies, books, dolls, and other contemporary symbolism tend to depict paler skin tones and associate these with power and beauty.
India’s long colonial history led to the impression that light skin is still associated with higher social standing. Because lighter skin is an important element in matchmaking culture, many young people, especially women, use skin-lightening creams containing mercury and also apply them to children in the hope of raising their chances in their future careers and marriage.
Body, Soul, and Nature are at risk of skin-lightening
Skin-lightening creams typically contain toxic chemicals like mercury and lead in quantities that significantly exceed health guidelines. Chemicals are used in these products to block the natural production of melanin in the skin and make the skin look fairer. However, these chemicals are harmful to the human skin and body. Bleaches weaken and penetrate the skin, increasing the risk of cancer and other diseases.
Pregnant and nursing women and children are specifically impacted: Children are more vulnerable to chemicals due to their lower weight, faster metabolism, and developing bodies. The mercury compounds in these products are of particular concern, as they can cause long-term harm to the skin, organs, and the nervous system. Besides these alarming physical side-effects, skin-lightening has a psychological component as well: in pursuit of a lighter skin, many users are driven by low self-esteem, self-worth, and identity issues caused by dubious beauty standards in social media and other marketing channels.
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In addition, cosmetics infused with harmful chemicals indirectly affect nature, as the waste and residues of these products pollute the environment. The residues from these products pollute the water once the user takes a shower or cleans their face. After using the product, there is a high chance that the harmful chemical-infused residues left in the product container end up in nature.
Nevertheless, the global skin-lightening market is highly unregulated and estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
International ambition to tame mercury
There are ambitions to make Mercury history: The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty adopted by the United Nations in 2013 to address and mitigate the adverse effects of mercury on human health and the environment. It aims to control and reduce anthropogenic mercury emissions, limit the release of mercury from products and industrial processes, and promote safer alternatives in various sectors. Article 4 of The Minamata Convention on Mercury requires all Parties of the Convention to not allow the manufacture, import, or export of cosmetics (with mercury content above 1ppm) including skin lightening soaps and creams.
However, a 2018 Zero Mercury Working Group and Biodiversity Research Institute test of over 300 products from 22 countries found that approximately 10 percent of skin lightening creams exceeded this limit, with many containing as much as 100 times the authorized amount.
Despite the regulation companies still produce harmful skin-bleaching products due to consumer demand – consumers which are mostly not aware that the creams can cause very harmful impacts on their health and wellbeing.
Black is Beautiful – toxic cosmetics are not
Positive policy examples give hope that we can break this vicious circle. In Rwanda, a special “Black is beautiful” campaign highlights the dangers of creams aimed at lightening the skin using substances like mercury and hydroquinone and addresses prevailing beauty standards that support internalised colourism among the Black population of Rwanda.
Its Ministerial Order on harmful chemicals in cosmetics received the Future Policy Award for a Toxic-Free Future in September 2023. The aim of the Ministerial Order is to protect the people of Rwanda from the harmful effects of chemicals contained in cosmetics and support the skin health of the Rwandan population. This policy has outlawed products containing harmful chemicals and made them less accessible. The Ministerial Order regulates the use of specific harmful cosmetics in Rwanda. It lists about 1,343 cosmetics and regulates the manufacture, import, distribution, and use of cosmetics that have been identified as containing substances that are hazardous for human consumption. In addition,
The regulation has established limits for the use of certain chemicals and heavy metals in cosmetic products and makes it mandatory to label cosmetics before they reach the local markets, as well as to control the manufacture, import, distribution, and use of cosmetics with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Market raids or inspections are conducted to maintain the standard of cosmetics according to the regulation.
The inspections have been successful in stopping the import and sale of cosmetics containing harmful chemicals to a considerable degree, and these skin-lightening creams are now difficult to acquire, and the associated fines are high. In 2021, the police confiscated around 39,200 units of skin-lightening products containing harmful chemicals. The Food and Drug Authority of Rwanda updates the list of products that are registered in Rwanda on a regular basis, including the names of all the ingredients and the levels of active chemical ingredients used in the cosmetic products.
Successful regulation in Asia
Bangladesh is one of the very few Asian countries that regulate heavy metals and other chemical compounds in cosmetic products. Its Guideline for Cosmetic Products from 2019 was shortlisted for the above-mentioned Future Policy Award. Since the implementation of the standard, an amount of around USD 10 million of these products has been seized from the Bangladeshi market, thus reducing their negative impact on human health and the environment.
The policy has introduced a limit on specific chemicals and products used in the formation of cosmetics produced nationally or imported to Bangladesh. The levels of heavy metals like lead (Pb), arsenic (As), and mercury (Hg) have been regulated. The Guideline has made it mandatory that these heavy metals do not exceed 20 ppm, 2 ppm, and 1 ppm per million respectively when tested by the prescribed methods mentioned in the Bangladesh Standards. The Guideline also regulates the texture and color of the cosmetics. The colourant if used as a raw material in cosmetics, shall not be harmful to the skin and shall comply with a policy regulating dyes, colour, and pigments.
Beauty in diversity
Skin lightening is harmful to human health and the environment. Still, too few people are aware of the dark sides of skin bleaching. Therefore, the media has a responsibility to raise awareness about the threats and combat dubious beauty standards based on racism and colonialism. People of colour can be proud of their skin tone, and initiatives like the Rwandan “Black is Beautiful” campaign lead the way forward. For sure, governments need to step up their consumer protection mechanisms and implement the Minamata Convention which does not allow the manufacture, import, or export of cosmetics (with mercury content above 1ppm). And last but not least, we are all beautiful. The diversity of skin colours is what makes each and every one of us beautiful and special.
The World Future Council is organizing a Webinar on this topic:
Dangerous Chemicals in Cosmetics: Challenges and Solutions for a Toxic-free World
23rd November 2023, 2 pm CET. Register here.
About the Future Policy Award 2023
In 2023, the Future Policy Award highlights the best policy solutions that protect people, especially children, and the environment from hazardous chemicals in products, and that work towards a toxic-free world. The winners of the 2023 Future Policy Award were announced at a high-level ceremony on the 28th of September at the ICCM5 in Bonn, Germany. The Future Policy Award 2023 is organised by the World Future Council in partnership with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
About the Authors of this article:
Alexandra Wandel has coordinated the Future Policy Award in partnership with 14 UN agencies since 2010. She has also developed the World Future Council since 2006 together with Jakob von Uexkull, the founder of the
Alternative Nobel Award. Beforehand she worked for Friends of the Earth International, Ecopeace Middle East, the Seattle to Brussels Network, and the Egyptian Association for Development and Environment, as an advisor to the
European Commission and for Greenpeace. As a student of international relations, she wrote her Master’s Thesis about global economic restructuring and counterhegemonic responses with Nigeria and the impacts on women and children as a case study. She currently is chair of the Management Board of the World Future Council, associate member of the German Association of the Club of Rome, and member of the international commission of UNESCO’s Voices of Future Generations Children’s Book Series.
Miriam Petersen is a Communications Consultant who spent over a decade working in the non-profit sector. Miriam holds a Master’s degree in European History and Literature. Her thesis was about the social and political role of women in early modern Ireland. Originally from the German North, she is based in the West of Ireland with her husband and three daughters, where they planted almost one thousand trees on their land.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo Credit: Sora Shimazaki via Pexels.