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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  • Interested

    Sloane, I co-sign with you completely.

  • Shay

    I remember being in Nigeria reading a newspaper and I seen the personal ads.The ads were asking for women that did not use bleaching cream. It was very disheartening to read that as I realized that a lot of women walked around with two toned faces and necks.

  • Fuchsia

    I have family members who used these skin bleaching creams. I would say they are confused individuals but they have their reasons mainly along the line of blending in the discoloration they believed they had before using the cream. They figured they couldn’t successfully darken their skin so they lightened it.

  • sloane

    we’re not talking about dating, tanning, or hair, we’re talking about people of color bleaching their skin with dangerous chemicals http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/16/health/16skin.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&em to look lighter. and yes, the LOGICAL conclusion most people come to if someone bleaches their skin to have a fairer skintone then the one they were born with is that they are suffering from a self-esteem issue related to colorism. and they are probably right. stating that people have a preference to be lighter and that’s all, is ridiculous and misguided because it absolves people from engaging in critical thinking about why they are bleaching their skin, and that it might be a manifestion of self-hatred. people don’t just “prefer” and then bleach their skin lighter for no reason, and i’m sorry, the reason is not some nebulous one that you’re trying to account for. it’s because of colorism.

    and if you REALLY want solutions to this problem then don’t say it only becomes a problem when people bring it up. the first way to fix a problem, is to acknowledge it and discuss it. if we get real about WHY women are doing this and stop coming up with excuses for it, then we can actively counteract it with affirming and positive imagery of brown people.

  • Lizz

    Is Serena Williams bleaching?

    • Interested

      It would not surprise me one bit if Serena was bleaching. She often gets the worst of it about her appearance because she is such a dark sista.

      She is beautiful just the way she is. Too bad her and other dark sistas did not and still do not get told that like they should!