The Reality of Skin Bleaching and the History Behind It

woman covering her face from the sun

Leandro Crespi /  Stocksy


Skin bleaching—aka the act of using substances, mixtures, or treatments to physically lighten one's skin tone—has been around for a long time, and it's developed into a billion-dollar international industry. However, the way the Western media has reported on this topic feels problematic: We often hear of skin bleaching happening in Ghana and the Caribbean, yet it's widely practiced everywhere, including in the United States, Southeast Asia, and India.

The act of lightening one's skin goes beyond the physical effect—it can also be incredibly detrimental to one's self-confidence and mental health. Just ask Senegalese supermodel Khoudia Diop, who shared with Byrdie that for years she hated her skin color because she was "so dark." Fortunately, she turned her biggest insecurity into her gift. "I look up to my mother because she's the only person in my family who did not bleach her skin," she says. "Skin-bleaching products are popular in my country because the notion is that lighter skin is beautiful. My mom is a woman who respects and loves herself and did not surrender to any beauty standards."

Yaba Blay, PhD, a professor, producer, and researcher, is one of the world's leading voices on colorism. Through her powerful work, she aims to disrupt the narrative and spread social consciousness. "Whether from the perspectives of Black folks or from those of whites, our communal voyeurism into skin bleaching tends to focus almost solely on the individuals who bleach their skin, and not the global institutions that make skin bleaching a viable option. And it's a problem," Blay wrote in a piece for Ebony, and this statement still holds true.

In regard to its deeply rooted history, the way it's misreported in the media, and the way we talk about it, Blay shares an outlook on skin bleaching that everyone needs to hear. Keep reading to hear what she has to say.

woman standing in from of a white board with words written on it

"My family is from Ghana. I grew up in New Orleans. I've always been acutely aware of colorism and how it functions. My maternal aunt passed away in her late 50s unexpectedly. Doctors said it was dementia, and I suspect it was because most of her adult life she bleached her skin. I wanted to investigate what the connection was between skin-bleaching products and health and I wanted to know the implications and impact it had on people.

"Our skin is dark for a reason, especially if you live in Africa. We need melanin to protect us from the sun's rays. When you use a chemical and ask your body to stop making the melanin, there are health implications. Your body can't be protected. In West Africa, we're seeing pathologies that aren't ours, like skin cancer. Historically, skin cancer is not as common among Black people because of our melanin. When we stop making melanin, we start suffering from skin cancer." That said, all skin types and tones can get skin cancer, irrespective of melanin or bleaching and therefore everyone should get skin checks as part of annual health visits.

The History of Skin Bleaching

black and white arms grabbing on to each other

"Historically, skin bleaching actually started in the Victorian era with the age of powder and paint, the precursor to us wearing foundation. European women were literally painting their faces with lead paint. Queen Elizabeth I was known to take arsenic complexion wafers, which were essentially little bits of poison to give her that ghostly look.

"White women were that invested in whiteness because it was their way of communicating purity. And at that time, race was being solidified as a concept, and whiteness was being defined as pure. We all know that's not the case. But at the time, white women were performing this level of whiteness with products. From using the paint and the arsenic wafers, they began to get sick. So the practice was then exported to the Americas.

"When we start looking at skin bleaching across the world, particularly in the African diaspora, we see skin bleaching exploding around the time of independence, which is a bit ironic, right? But that was about the colonial powers and colonial countries using commodity racism—they were using whiteness as a way to sell products.

"More recently, with the Dove and Nivea scandal, there were accusations about their advertising. But if you research the history of soap, in particular, there's a long history of commodity racism, which is using Black bodies as a way to demonstrate the potency of a product. You use a Black body as the 'before,' insert product, and they become white.

"At the time of so-called 'independence,' these European countries were flooding their colonial places with their products and using whiteness as a way to sell the products. People were attempting to gain some level of power and privilege that's associated with whiteness, and they started bleaching their skin in the '50s."

The Way Skin Bleaching Is Reported in the Media

a blonde haired woman and dark haired woman standing together

"This isn't anything new—what's new is people's desire to report on this topic. This can be problematic for me as someone who's been researching this for many years since it was the topic of my dissertation. My discomfort with so-called 'diverse' or predominately white publications is that folks tend to criminalize and castigate people who bleach their skin. There tends to be an overwhelming focus on Black women particularly. The framing of the story is always interesting because people act surprised about this, and I don't understand why given the history of white supremacy in this country and across the world.

My discomfort with so-called 'diverse' or predominately white publications is that folks tend to criminalize and castigate people who bleach their skin.

"We're reporting and interested in it now, but it's impossible for me to have a conversation devoid of history and critical analysis of white supremacy. Of course you're going to be surprised if you're unaware because then it looks like suddenly out of nowhere here are these people of African descent who arbitrarily want white skin. You should absolutely believe that they would do that, particularly in the way that whiteness is projected, prioritized, and put on a pedestal all over the world. Of course people want access to that. And if you make a product and give them the option, some people are going to take it. This shouldn't be surprising.

"In the media as a whole, there's something about shock factor that becomes problematic. In a lot of ways, we use Black people—and Black women specifically—to feed our need to be shocked and to feel sorry for somebody. The question is, what are we reporting for? Do we really want to affect change? If we want to affect change, why aren't we talking to government officials? So what's the point? You want credit for doing something you're not really invested in changing. For me, the question in the reporting is what is the intention? If the intention is really about affecting change, we have to stop focusing on individuals and focus on institutions.

"This is not these women's 'fault.' Your interest shouldn't be in women and why they're doing it; your interest should be in why it's an option. And why are there entire corporations (many of which are based in New York) that feed off of making these products? ... That's where our conversation should be. We question why people are doing it, but the question should be why are people making these products?

Your interest shouldn't be in women and why they're doing it; your interest should be in why it's an option.

"I take this position very strongly anytime anyone talks to me about skin bleaching. We can talk about the practice, but I also want to be clear that the issue isn't with the women or the people who practice—the issue is with the institution that supports and even encourages the practice—that's where our shock should be. Everyone wants to talk about skin bleaching, but who has the nerve to walk into a government space and call out this problem? This is an epidemic because you allow it. What are you going to do to change it?"

The Worldwide Epidemic of Skin Bleaching

black and white hands intertwined

"Skin bleaching is just as prevalent in America as it is everywhere else. In the United States, we hide under political correctness, so people aren't going to be as open about it. We don't have billboards here because the FDA has some level of enforcement of what can be advertised.

"For example, in Ghana, there's the Food and Drugs Board. On paper, it says skin-bleaching products are banned and we shouldn't be advertising these products. But if you walk right outside the Food and Drugs Board, you can find the products and you can see a billboard advertising skin bleaching. In the news a few years ago, people were applauding Ghana for banning skin bleaching, but that's such bullshit. Primarily because in the last 20 years, they've had these bans "on the books," but no one has enforced them.

"But if you open up a U.S. magazine where the audience is primarily Black women, you're going to see ads of products that are made to "even out skin tones." If you go to a beauty supply store right now, there are entire aisles dedicated to skin-bleaching products that I can find in Ghana and in Brooklyn. The fact that the shelves remain stocked lets us know that the product is as active as it is there. The difference is that people aren't as forthcoming in talking about it here because we have all this judgment. We have all these articles that portray a level of shock factor in regard to skin bleaching, so why would anyone here admit to doing it?

The difference is that people aren't as forthcoming in talking about it here because we have all this judgment.

"In other places, there's something different about the space and context, so people don't hide behind political correctness in the ways that we do. What's important to me and my position is to make sure that we're not participating in the history of projecting all of this negativity and barbarism to these spaces out in the "third world" as if America is so much more developed. We get more coverage and there's more visibility in the Americas because people are trying to play it off differently, but you have loads of communities, particularly in New York City, and immigrant communities, who bring the practice with them. And the products are here for them to have access to.

"Ultimately, I think all over the world, it's about understanding the stronghold that white supremacy has on people's minds. And the ways that we continue to assign pivotal power to whiteness so people still want access to it. If we're going to talk about skin bleaching, we also have to talk about chemical hair relaxing, plastic surgery, and all of these things that are on the spectrum when we're engaging how white supremacy impacts our bodies. It's because race is an in-your-face marker of difference. We focus more on skin bleaching more than anything else. For some reason, we're much more surprised by skin bleaching than all the other things we all do on a day-to-day basis."

The Mistake Made When Talking About Skin Bleaching

a diverse group of skin colors

"I wrote a piece for Ebony a few years ago calling us all out on the conversations we're having about skin bleaching. Like, if you want to talk about skin bleaching, let's talk about Black people who choose to live in all-white neighborhoods or send their kids to predominately white schools because we have internalized the idea that is better for our children—that's white supremacy. We have to understand how white supremacy functions before we begin to somehow investigate and understand skin bleaching. There are so many things that are like skin bleaching, and it just looks different."

How to Make a Difference

"The first step for us is to change our thinking around skin bleaching. Skin bleaching isn't only happening in African communities. We're seeing it explored more in Southeast Asia. People tend to focus on Africa and the Caribbean, but it's so huge in India. The same way communities have had the power to push legislation with our issues should be our concern as opposed to pointing the finger. If you're interested in pushing for change, it has to be at the institutional level."

Read more of Yaba Blay's work and keep up with her projects and speaking engagements here.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. What dark-skinned people need to know about skin cancer. Updated May 9, 2019.

Related Stories