Colorism is a sickness that still plagues our society today. As absurd as it sounds in this day and age, the “White is right” mentality unfortunately still internally afflicts many. And there are individuals willing to go to extreme lengths to get there. One method is through skin bleaching.

Some skin creams promise to correct discoloration and even out hyperpigmentation, but many are used to completely alter one’s complexion. One online source claims that it is a “myth” that African-Americans use skin bleaching creams to look more Caucasian. But is it?

I grew up witnessing family members applying products in order to lighten their complexions. Over a decade later, they still swear by these same creams. “It makes my skin look smooth and clear,” a close relative told me. Her once-coco skin was now a golden caramel. It supposedly made her look younger and more radiant. She even bragged about the compliments she received after she started using the cream. Old friends begged her to divulge what she had been using. “I’ll never tell them,” she swore.

It no surprise that these creams are heavily marketed in urban communities and in neighborhoods with a population of color. A line blatantly called “Fair & White” claims to have products that “make your complexion radiant.” Then there are harsh creams like “African Queen Beauty Cream” that come under misleading names like “Organic Toning Body Lotion Skin Lightener System,” or “Complexion Lotion.“ Another called “ActiveWhite” says it makes “Whiter Skin possible, for a more beautiful you.” Really though? In 2010? The even sadder part is that there are women, like my beautiful aunts and cousins, who purchase and use these products.

Elise King*, a 22-year-old law student, started using bleaching creams at age 11. “I never thought anything was wrong with using bleaching creams,” she says. “In my community, like many African communities, it was common. My mother gave me these creams to use because she wanted me to be accepted the same way that she, a light-skinned woman, was.”

It wasn’t until she got to college that she started to question why she was altering her appearance. “I stopped using them, and tried to embrace my natural beauty,” King explains.

And it’s good that she did because, despite their seductive labels that claim the products “tone” your skin and make you “glow,” these creams can cause harm. Some imported creams made in Germany and South America have a high mercury and arsenic content and can lead to death. Too much mercury intake can shut down your kidneys, while arsenic and hydroquinone both have high cancer risks.

King admits that she still uses bleaching creams to fade dark spots or to get rid of a dark tan: “I still struggle with this issue, since I receive more compliments when I appear lighter, but I’m learning to adjust to it.”

*Name has been changed.

– Audra E. Lord

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