Many Americans want to lighten their skin.
Skin lightening, also known as whitening or bleaching, is a multibillion-dollar industry with products that can damage the skin and that researchers say convey a dangerous message about beauty and social value. But people who use these products — marketed primarily to women — rarely understand the health risks of using over-the-counter chemicals, researchers at Northwestern University found in a study recently published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.
The researchers surveyed hundreds of people, a majority of them black women. Many of the respondents reported using skin lightening products, with some admitting they were unaware that the products contained harmful ingredients such as hydroquinone, which can cause rashes, swelling, discoloration, and more.
“The vast majority of times, skin lightening is really used for the purpose of treating a medical dermatological condition or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentations,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Roopal Kundu, founder and director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair. “But sometimes it’s used in the space of wanting lighter skin and the constructs of beauty compounded by light and dark skin.”
“We’ve done other work in that space to try to understand why people might use these products,” she continued. “The bottom line is that lighter skin is more aesthetically pleasing or considered something of value in certain communities. This is centuries in the making, generations in the making.”
Respondents who used skin lighteners reported experiencing colorism in their lives. Colorism, or color bias, is a system of inequality in which lighter-skinned non-white people are perceived as more beautiful, more socially acceptable, and deserving of privileges often denied to darker-skinned people. Light-skinned black men are believed to be more educated than dark-skinned men, and skin color plays a role when dark-skinned applicants compete with light-skinned applicants.
Meanwhile, dark-skinned black people risk harsher prison sentences than light-skinned people, according to research published by the University of Chicago. And Northwestern’s recent study highlights the health disparities for dark-skinned non-white people.
While colorism is ubiquitous among black Americans, such bias is a global problem and occurs across all nationalities and ethnicities. It has existed in India for centuries due to casteism and colonialism, and in a 2021 Pew Research Center poll of Latinos, several said they face discrimination and barriers to upward mobility as a result of having dark skin. In Hollywood, leading roles go to light-skinned actors rather than dark ones.
National conversations about colorism have surfaced in recent years, with actors like Zoe Saldaña and musicians like Beyoncé and Ice Spice facing backlash for capitalizing on colorism in the entertainment industry.
“The one common denominator I can point to is that we are all dominated by Eurocentric power structures, which shape our ideals,” says Ronald Hall, a Michigan State University professor who has written several articles and books on colorism, including “Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” . on Colorism” and “The Historical Globalization of Colorism.”
“Whiteness is idealized. People of color don’t think about that. They just buy into expressing those ideals,” he said.
Both Kundu and Hall agree that because whiteness is associated with social value and upward mobility, people are often willing to take great risks to lighten their skin. The skin-lightening industry has been criticized for years, especially since just last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about the dangers of illegally marketed over-the-counter lightening products. These products often contain toxic ingredients and can cause permanent damage with prolonged use, Kundu said. Yet these ingredients remain widely available in products sold in stores, online, and through social media.
Hall said the first step in eradicating colorism and its consequences is to adequately address the problem.
“This is an issue that every African American, every person of color knows and experiences,” said Hall, who will deliver the keynote address at the nation’s first-ever virtual conference on colorism. “But people don’t want to talk about it, they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. So that actually really sustains it. Once you face it, you can act on it.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com