Colorism is driving women of color to use harmful skin lightening products, according to a new study


Many Americans want to lighten their skin.

Skin lightening, also called bleaching or bleaching, is a multibillion-dollar industry with products that can damage skin and that researchers say promote a dangerous message about beauty and social value. But people who use these products — mostly marketed to women — rarely understand the health risks of using the over-the-counter chemicals, Northwestern University researchers found in a recently published study. in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.

The researchers surveyed hundreds of people, most of them black women. Many of the respondents reported using skin lightening products, and a portion admitted that they were unaware that the products contained harmful ingredients such as hydroquinonewhich can cause skin rashes, swelling, discoloration and more.

«The vast majority of the time, skin lightening is actually used with the goal of treating a medical dermatologic condition or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentations,» said study lead author Dr. Roopal Kundu, founder and director of the Northwest Medicine Center for Ethnic Skin and Hair. «But sometimes it’s used in the space of wanting lighter skin and the beauty constructs made up of light and dark skin.»

“We’ve done other work in that space trying to understand why people might use these products,” he continued. “It comes back to the fact that lighter skin is more aesthetic or is considered something of value among 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-whites are seen as more beautiful, socially acceptable, and deserving of privileges that are often denied to darker-skinned people. . Black men with light skin are is perceived to have more education than those with dark skin, and skin tone plays a role when job applicants with dark skin compete with light-skinned applicants.

Meanwhile, the darker skinned blacks face harsher prison sentences than those with fair skin, according to research published by the University of Chicago. And the recent Northwestern study highlights disparities in the health of dark-skinned people who are not white.

Although colorism is pervasive among African Americans, that bias is a worldwide problem and exists across all nationalities and ethnicities. It has persisted in India for centuries as a result of castism and colonialism, and in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey of Latinos, several said they face discrimination and barriers to advancement as a result of having dark skin. In Hollywood, leading roles tend to go to light-skinned actors over dark ones.

National conversations about colorism have sprung up in recent years, with actors like Zoe Saldaña and musicians like Beyoncé and ice spice faces backlash for profiting from colorism in the entertainment industry.

«The only common denominator I can point to: We are all dominated by Eurocentric power structures, which define our ideals,» said 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 has been idealized. People of color don’t think about that. They just agree to express those ideals,” she said.

Both Kundu and Hall agree that because whiteness is linked to social value and upward mobility, people are often willing to take great risks to obtain lighter skin. The skin lightening industry has faced criticism for years, especially because the The US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers as recently as last year about the dangers of illegally marketed over-the-counter lightening products. These products often contain toxic ingredients and can cause permanent damage if used for long periods of time, Kundu said. Still, these ingredients remain widely available in products sold in stores, online, and through social media.

Hall said that the first step to eradicating colorism and its consequences is to properly address the problem.

«This is an issue that every African American, every person of color knows about and experiences,» said Hall, who will deliver the keynote address at the national conference. first virtual conference on colorism. “But people don’t want to talk about it, they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. So, in effect, it really sustains it. Once you face it, then you can act accordingly.»

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