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Skin whitening: What is it, what are the risks and who profits?

Editor's Note: (This story is part of 'White lies', a series by CNN's As Equals investigating skin whitening practices worldwide to expose the underlying drivers of colorism, the industry that profits from it and the cost to individuals and communities. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.)

Skin whitening is the use of cosmetic products or services to reduce the amount of melanin, or pigment, in the skin to make it appear lighter.

It's a big industry and predominantly targets women of color in every region of the world, with the Asia-Pacific region being the most lucrative.

The practice dates back centuries, has many names -- skin lightening, whitening, bleaching -- and has a range of cultural origins depending on the region. But the trend is ultimately rooted in colorism and the fact that in many cultures, lighter skin is associated with beauty and better prospects in terms of employment, marriage and social standing.

Find out more about the global skin whitening market, the culture of colorism promoting it, the industry behind these products and the effect they can have on your health.

The global skin whitening market

The culture behind skin whitening

Lighter skin has long been linked to wealth and status, in some regions due to manual laborers working out in the sun while the wealthy stayed indoors. In others, experts blame colonialism, slavery and globalization.

Colorism and light-skin privilege have led to disparities in every region of the world, in everything from social treatment to marriageability, education, employment and even, in the US, prison sentencing.

Toxic skin whitening ingredients

Skin whitening products often contain ingredients that are toxic when used cosmetically for long durations and without medical guidance as they have the ability not just to damage your skin but cause life-threatening ailments.

The chemicals used to lighten skin vary greatly worldwide and are constantly evolving, with antioxidants such as glutathione, as well as vitamin C and collagen now available to inject -- most of which are unproven and often unsafe.

However, three ingredients dominate harmful skin whitening products worldwide and are heavily regulated in most countries -- but they remain widely available, and misuse or prolonged use can be toxic to your health.

The companies making skin whitening products

Skin whitening products have evolved from freckle removers and skin bleaches, to whiteners and lighteners as the culture and conversations around skin color have changed, but their production and sale have persisted as demand has not waned.

Skin whiteners can be bought everywhere from small stores, supermarkets and high-end clinics, to markets, third-party websites, social media platforms and even directly from people's homes.

As such, manufacturers range from large multinational corporations to community-based chemists.

Read: 'Fairness mania' is fueling a dangerous drug dependence in India

  • Many multinational companies sell a range of products marketed or labeled as skin whitening products, often described as targeting dark spots or uneven skin tone.
  • These include giants such as Procter & Gamble, Shisheido, Beiersdorf and Unilever.
  • Many products made by these multinationals are only sold in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and not in their home markets.
  • In the past, adverts in Asia and Africa have portrayed women getting their dream job or man by making their skin lighter.
  • Corporations have increasingly changed their branding and marketing, responding to demands for the inclusion of all skin colors in the beauty industry.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement forced some companies to address double standards: they sold skin whitening products while claiming to support racial justice.
  • Johnson & Johnson agreed to stop selling Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness.
  • L'Oreal and Unilever said they would remove references to "white", "fair" and "light" from their skincare products, but products are still sold on third-party sites.
  • Unilever changed the name of its top-selling brand, Fair & Lovely, to Glow & Lovely, but the product remains available.
  • (Scroll down to read responses from these companies)

  • Medications containing steroids and hydroquinone are made by many of the biggest pharmaceutical companies.
  • These have legitimate medical uses and must be obtained with a prescription in most countries.
  • But these creams are often misused and obtained illegally in many countries where skin whitening is a popular practice due to their potential side effects, which include lightening of the skin.

  • The majority of skin whitening creams containing harmful ingredients are made by smaller companies in a range of countries, including Pakistan, Lebanon and China.
  • Toxic ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone are rarely listed on their packaging, but independent testing by multiple organizations has identified them.
  • The Zero Mercury Working Group regularly tests samples of skin-whitening creams and has found mercury concentrations of up to 40,000 parts per million (ppm).
  • Mercury and hydroquinone have been found in hundreds of skin whitening products, including Shivanya Beauty Cream, Chandni, Faiza, and Noor which are all manufactured in Pakistan.
  • These toxic ingredients are banned in cosmetics in Pakistan but are still used and sold in countries where they are also banned or restricted.

Watch: Skin lightening is an $8.6 billion industry. This woman is trying to stop it

The marketplaces for skin whitening products

  • Commercial products manufactured by multinational corporations are widely available in stores and supermarkets worldwide, particularly in Asia.
  • Illegal products containing toxic ingredients are smuggled across borders and sold at local sites, ranging from beauty stores and malls to local street markets.
  • In 2018, Southwark Council in the UK seized 1129 skin-whitening products being sold in a hair and cosmetics shop in London that tested positive for hydroquinone or steroids.
  • The Beautywell project has been able to buy products containing toxic ingredients at malls in the US and Kenya as well as local street markets in East Africa.
  • Homemade products are often bought at the community level, particularly in rural populations, from village shops or people's homes.
  • People buying the creams are usually unaware of the harmful ingredients they contain.

  • Instagram and Facebook are popular marketplaces for skin whitening products.
  • Tiktok is also a major platform where products and the practice is promoted.
  • Commercial products and those containing toxic ingredients are easily accessible on third party sites such as Amazon and eBay.
  • Activists have successful petitioned for the removal of skin whitening products from these sites, only for products to return later.
  • Activists and agencies combating the sale of skin whitening products containing toxic ingredients support calls for greater liability for third-party sellers, to reduce the sale of illegal products on these platforms.

What the companies making or selling skin whitening products say

CNN reached out to the multinational corporations, companies, third-party sites and social-media giants named above for response to their involvement in either the manufacture, sale or promotion of skin whitening practices and products.

Corporations were asked to respond to the naming of their products and the criticism that their products promote skin whitening and white beauty ideals in general.

  • Shisheido told CNN: "Our brightening products function by restricting the formulation of melanin which causes age spots and freckles. These products do not have the ability to whiten the skin. We do not sell whitening products, nor do we recommend whitening."

  • Beiersdorf told CNN: "We have conducted an in-depth review to determine implications for our product offering and marketing approach, also taking extensive consumer research into account, and will cease communications that do not embrace the complexions of our diverse consumer base. These adaptations to our product communication will become more visible in the markets gradually beginning of next year [2022]."

  • Beiersdorf also said: "An external diversity and inclusion board of experts has been appointed to advise Nivea on the best way to market products to consumers in individual markets in an inclusive manner."

  • Unilever stated: "We have made good progress in updating our packaging and communications, although there is still some way to go. Consumers may still find previous packaging available due to factors such as stock pipelines, or previous marketing descriptions on third-party websites."

  • Unilever also said: "We also continue to evolve our advertising to feature women of different skin tones."

  • Procter and Gamble did not respond to multiple requests from CNN for comment.

Companies making products containing mercury were asked if they had done anything since tests identified their products to contain mercury, how their products were being imported into countries where they are illegal and whether the companies are aware that high levels of mercury can significantly damage a person's health.

Shivanya, Faiza, Chandni and Noor did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

Social media companies were asked whether they were aware that skin whitening creams, including ones containing toxic and often illegal ingredients, were being promoted and sold on their platforms. They were also asked to respond to criticism that enabling this promotes colorism and perpetuates white beauty ideals.

  • Meta (for Facebook and Instagram) did not provide a statement to CNN, but informed CNN that the company dedicates substantial resources to ensuring that unsafe or illegal items are not sold via their platforms.

  • Meta also said it works with regulators and other subject matter experts to refine its related policies and controls.

  • TikTok also did not provide a statement to CNN, but shared information that the company uses a combination of technologies and moderation teams to identify, review and, where appropriate, remove content or accounts that violate its community guidelines.

  • When CNN shared a link to a video of someone promoting the practice of skin whitening alongside a product to enable it, TikTok told CNN the video was organic content, not a paid-for advertisement, and did not violate its guidelines.

Third-party sites were asked if they were aware that skin whitening-products containing toxic and often illegal ingredients were being sold on their platforms and whether anything is being done to monitor and stop such activity.

  • Amazon told CNN: "Third-party sellers are independent businesses and are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies when listings items for sale in our store."

  • The company added that "those who violate our policies are subject to action including potential removal of their account."
  • Amazon removed the pages highlighted by CNN that were selling some of these products.

  • eBay told CNN: "Only items that comply with the law are allowed to be listed on eBay and any products containing hydroquinone, steroids or mercury are banned."

  • When both eBay and Amazon were asked in a follow up why products are slipping through their surveillance, Amazon did not respond to CNN.

  • eBay said: "eBay continuously updates its enforcement measures to address circumvention from bad actors. Where eBay identifies bad actors, our security teams remove their listings and take strict enforcement action against them."
  • eBay removed the listings highlighted by CNN that were selling some of these products.

Read: Why CNN is launching a new series on skin whitening