For centuries, women throughout Asia and Africa have been brought up to believe that white is beautiful. The association of fairness with beauty has led to many women bleaching their skin in an ever-expanding industry.

With rumoured celebrities such as Beyonce and Rihanna believed to be regular users of the product, the lightening of one’s skin is becoming an increasingly controversial issue. Like many other trends, where the famous lead, the general public usually follows. Skin bleaching however cannot be linked to celebrity endorsement nor can it be called a trend, due to its long-standing popularity. It has certainly been a favourite beauty choice of many women worldwide.

A report by the World Health Organization states that Nigerians are the biggest users of skin bleaching products. As many as 77% of Nigerian women use them on a regular basis and skin lightening products are the biggest exports to the country. Nigeria is followed by Togo with 59%, South Africa with 35% and Mali at 25%. However, the issue is not exclusive to just Africa. It is also flourishing throughout Asia with countries such as India also seeing a rising trend in the popularity of skin bleaching. In fact the problem might be closer to home than imagined, with private skin clinics like those in Harley Street London reporting a good turnout of patients demanding the treatment.

Skin bleaching procedures carry huge medical risks with them. A survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found that 16% of dermatologists believe lightening creams are ‘completely unsafe’ and 80% feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist. Many skin lightening creams contain illegal compounds that can damage your health according to dermatologists. In extreme cases, skin bleaching causes blood cancers such as leukaemia, cancers of the liver, kidneys, as well as a severe skin condition called Ochronosis,  which is a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade.

Our skin is such a fundamental aspect of our appearance and heritage and due to the huge medical risks involved, the lightening of a person’s natural skin tone is subject to a huge racial debate. In an effort to uncover reasons behind the popularity of this product, skin bleaching has been linked to low self-esteem and negative self-perceptions of one’s natural beauty in favour of a lighter ‘better’ face.

The notion that ‘white is beautiful’ also echoes here. Dr Yaba Blay, an expert on African studies from the University of Drexel links this issue to a ‘colonial mentality’ in which people of darker skin tones associate ‘whiteness’ with being better in every way including beauty. Colonisation occurred in many of the countries where skin bleaching is popular right now including many parts of Africa as well as India. So the trend in trying to look whiter goes beyond appearances because ‘white’ is about white privilege and all that comes with it, a notion that was very familiar to the  colonised ancestors. It seems the idealisations of white beauty are also reinforced in the media as many leading actresses of Bollywood are notably light skinned.

Perhaps the focus is too much on the skin bleaching aspect and not so much on the fact that this is just another extreme cosmetic procedure women subject themselves to. Perhaps the act of skin bleaching is not so much about race and issues of racial inferiority but more of a gender issue. South African musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi is candid about her use of  lightening products and as a result has faced backlash from the press. However, she claims that skin bleaching for her is more of a self-esteem issue and bleaching her skin makes her feel more confident and beautiful. In fact she claims that skin bleaching is a personal choice, no different from breast implants or having a nose job.

In a way this opens up a fresh approach to the issue. Excessive tanning to darken one’s skin tone has been on the rise in the Western world. Yet people are less reluctant to link that to issues of race.

Extreme beauty treatments are not something new, and procedures like skin bleaching have many reasons for their popularity. If skin bleaching is due to the belief that ‘white is beautiful’, then the rise of dark skinned beauties such as actress Lupita Nyong’o who embrace their natural skin colour, might possibly add another alternative to this extreme obsession.