I was 9 when I received my first—and last—skin-lightening product. It was a black bar of soap gifted to me by an aunt who was visiting from the Philippines at the time. On the label, it promised to exfoliate dead skin, fade away dark spots, and lighten my skin. "You're so dark," she said. "This will help." I was confused, but as a dutiful Asian child who always respects her elders, I smiled back and thanked her. After my aunt's visit, I found the soap in my shower, which I took as a not-so-subtle hint that I should start using it. I remember the soap's black suds lathering and smelling nicely, but matter how much or hard I scrubbed, using it every day proved futile: I didn’t get any lighter.
As explained by Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, skin bleaching is the process by which substances are used to reduce melanin concentration in the skin to lighten it. It's an ancient process that can be traced back all the way to the 1500s and continues to be a thriving business, coming in the form of soaps, creams, pills, and injectables. Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it's even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%). It's also more common in the U.S. than many realize, with bleaching agents such as hydroquinone commonly used in products that treat discoloration and hyperpigmentation. By 2027, the skin whitening industry is projected to be worth over $24 billion dollars. But it's a business fraught with potential hazards, cautions Chang.
“Skin bleaching treatments are largely unregulated," she explains. "There are a lot of ‘skin whitening’ products and treatments out on the market with little or no medical evidence.” Studies on the efficacy of popular whitening ingredients are often inconclusive, and many of them have been proven to be quite dangerous. Many countries, such as Ghana, Japan, Australia, and Rwanda, have banned the use of bleaching agents. And while there are continued reports of links to blood poisoning and cancer, many people still seek these products out.
“There's a large societal demand for lightening skin agents in Asia, and even drugstores and spas dedicated to skin bleaching,” explains dermatologist and Entière founder Melissa K. Levin, MD, adding that pigmentary conditions such as melasma, lentigines, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation also further demand for skin lightening options. Recently, Refinery29 shed light on a group of Filipino women that turned to everything from glutathione IVs to oral medications to lighten their skin, underlining that skin bleaching is far more than just the desire to look whiter; it’s used to advance everything from one's career to relationships for a chance at a better life.
In her book, Is Lighter Better?: Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Jose State University Joanne L. Rondilla explains how skin color isn’t primarily about vanity for Asians; it’s about social standing. “Having light skin implied that one was a woman of high class, education, and leisure,” she writes. “A woman’s light skin meant she did not need to work outdoors to make a living."
I’ve told friends about the skin whitening soap incident without much thought about how shocking it might come across. My non-white friends understood, some even offering their own stories about skin bleaching, while my white friends couldn’t comprehend why lightening soaps even exist. Of course, they haven't experienced what systemic racism has created within ethnic communities: colorism. Rondilla defines colorism as the discriminatory treatment of people who fall within the same ethnic and racial background. “[It] does differ within different ethnic communities for various reasons,” she says. “It really comes down to colonial history as well as how each community understands and power and privilege.”
On a podcast episode of This Filipino American Life, Rondilla explains that what makes Filipino colorism distinct from other communities is its different layers of colonialism by the Spanish, Americans, and temporarily the Japanese during World War II. All, she says, would compare the indigenous Filipinos to the fairer-skinned Chinese businessmen because the Chinese “have money and capital.”
“We see this with our own families when someone looking longingly at someone with white skin; they’re mestiza—mixed with either European blood or Chinese blood,” she tells the podcast hosts. “Our sense of colorism isn’t black or white—it’s defined by these other factors that have happened historically.”
While my extended family worried over my dark skin, my white friends seemed to celebrate it. “I’m so jealous of your tan,” said one friend. “You’re so lucky you’re not as pale as me,” said another. They'd also misunderstand and even dismiss my family’s worry that a darker skin tone means life automatically becomes that much harder for me.
“This is where I think white people miss the mark: Skin isn’t just skin," says Rondilla. "Skin has social and racial, historical, political, and sociological meaning. When someone says, ‘Oh I love your tan, I wish I had tan skin like you,’ that person doesn’t understand the historical trauma that comes from the skin itself [and] that comes down from privilege.”
Even with brands like Fenty Beauty fine-tuning formulas for all women and pushing the inclusivity conversation to forefront, colorism still dictates to what degree we are allowed to celebrate our color.
“Celebrating skin tone is great, but in the U.S. we’re at a point where we really have to not just celebrate diversity, but incorporate diversity and equity into the larger conversation,” she says. “I think about these moments of ‘celebrating your skin tone’ as just that—moments. [But] I hope they become more long term.”
I recently asked my mom about the whitening soap. While she admits that she should’ve thrown it away, she insists my aunt was coming only from a good place. “Your skin shouldn’t be a barrier, but you know how things are,” she said. “Family will always want to do everything to even out the playing field for you.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue