The desire for many dark-skinned women – and increasingly men – to whiten their complexion is rife, feeding a growing skin whitening industry estimated at USD 9.88 billion in 2021. This phenomenon speaks volumes of the long-lasting and pervasive impact of the discriminatory values of colonial times, which dictate a predominantly ‘white’ standard on beauty, well into our modern days.   

The International Day of Actions for Women’s Health celebrated on the 28th of May commemorates women’s health and rights. A good opportunity to remind ourselves how women are disproportionately exposed and impacted by harmful chemicals, but also how women of colour – in the quest for lighter skin tone – unwittingly expose themselves and their relatives to more toxic and often illegal substances. 

Skin lightening: the perfect concoction for success…. 

The practice of skin lightening, also named skin whitening or skin bleaching, is viewed by most as a mean to achieve success and higher social and professional ladders.  

Many people believe that lighter skin makes a person appear more educated, wealthier, and more successful. In many regions of the world, lightening your skin will likely increase your chances to find a job or even a husband. 

“My granddad said I was so dark and skinny that I would never find a husband” Shrymoyee (India). A witness collected by CNN through its White Lies Series

The preference for lighter skin tone is not new and can have different cultural origins. It takes its roots from colourism, a discrimination based on the skin-colour occurring between and within communities. People with lighter skin tones have often been perceived as more privileged as the past witnesses. There is a range of reasons for this, including the association with manual laborers who spend a lot of time outside in the sun and therefore have darker complexions compared to the wealthy.  Another important influence comes from slavery and colonialism: “lighter-skinned people who were enslaved were more likely to be related to their master and favored to work indoors, while darker-skinned people were sent to the fields” as CNN pointed out in its White Lies Series

Today, the repeated message “white is better” highlights how deeply race, gender, femininity and ageism are interlinked and how the skin-lightening industry is attempting to make this message sound acceptable. As a result, women in the Philippines prefer white skin because it is “beautiful”, “is clean to look at” or “symbolizes better status in life”. Overall, in Africa, Asia and other regions, women bleach their skin because fair skin is often seen as more attractive. Unfortunately, it has been shown that such practices provide them with an economic advantage

Petiri Ira shared in a student opinion in 2022: “I even used to dream of waking up and having a lighter skin tone and long, blonde hair.” 

… at the expense of health 

Skin lightening can come at great health and environmental costs. Skin lightening products do often contain harmful chemicals such as steroids or hydroquinone. They can also contain mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. 

Mercury and mercury compounds are used because they reduce or block the production of the pigment melanin in the skin cells. Therefore, the natural ability of the skin to protect itself from UV light is destroyed, thereby increasing the risk of skin cancers in lightened skin. Depending on the active ingredients, skin-lightening formulations can cause a number of direct and indirect skin disorders, as well as neurological and kidney problems. 

Mercury is on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of the 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major health concern. As a WHO fact sheet explains, “Adverse health effects of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams and soaps include: skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.” 

While more men are known to turn towards skin whitening products, those type of cosmetics are predominantly used by women and girls, whose health is differently impacted by chemicals. Alongside social, cultural, or occupational factors, physiological, anatomic, and other biologic differences influence susceptibility to chemicals. For example, different body composition results in a higher capacity of women to accumulate toxic chemicals as women have higher average body fat percentage than men. Moreover, during pregnancy, postpartum and lactation many important physiological and anatomical changes occur in women’s bodies that affect women’s exposure to chemicals. On top of that, mercury can enter the bloodstream and cross the placenta barrier, affecting in turn the neurological development of the fetus.  

Mercury contamination can occur through skin-to-skin contact, but not only. A study, back from 2015, had already shown that homes of cream users’ can be polluted with mercury and can become a source of contamination through surfaces, personal belongings, and ambient air. Further to this, mercury from skin lightening products can enter the environment via wastewater, and may be transformed there into methylmercury, the most toxic compound, by bacteria. Methylmercury accumulates in fish, and in turn, can enter the human diet. 

What has the world been doing? 

Due to the hazardous nature of mercury-containing products, several regulations were put in place at both the global and national levels. Under the Minamata Convention on mercury, the manufacture and trade of mercury added cosmetics with over 1 ppm were to be phased out by 2020. In November 2023, the fifth Conferences of Parties decided to ban them all by 2025, irrespective of their mercury concentrations. 

Despite a global ban, supported by national legislation, set to address this issue, the reality has shown how far we are from a toxic-free cosmetic market.  

Looking at the European Union, which had already banned mercury and mercury compounds from cosmetics back in 2009 (except for uses as preservatives), skin lightening products accounted for more than 26% of violations of the EU cosmetics regulation in RAPEX (EU rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products) for the period 2005-2018. An estimate expected to have inflated in the meantime, considering the increasing trends towards skin lightening. 

The European Environmental Bureau, together with the Zero Mercury Working Group, have been shedding light on the scale of the issue as well as on its enforcement challenges through its skin lightening campaign which started in 2017. 

Our various studies have shown how easy it is to find mercury containing skin lightening products in every corner of the world. Among the 991 products the Zero Mercury Working Group purchased from local and online marketplaces between 2017 and 2023, 448 (45%) were found to contain mercury above the 1 ppm threshold. On top of this, an undercover investigation carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency brought undeniable evidence: manufacturers do intentionally add mercury compounds into the products they produce. With mercury being hardly ever labelled on the product’s ingredient list, it is nearly impossible for consumers to make an informed and safe choice. 

Despite its intrinsic link to injustice, this practice is on the rise. In fact, the global skin lightening products market size is predicted to reach USD 16.08 billion by 2030, corresponding to a 5,56% increase from 2022 to 2023. Among the key drivers is the increased advertising and skyrocketing online sales. Over the years, the Zero Mercury Working Group has been putting the spotlight on the lack of accountability of online platforms and the ease at which, in one click, it is possible to purchase, from anywhere in the world, a suspect skin lightening product advertising promising bleaching results. 

Window of opportunities 

At the last Conference of Parties (COP) of the Minamata Convention in 2023, Parties brought back the mercury-added cosmetics among its top priorities. As a result, an intersessional process is now open, giving all Parties and relevant stakeholders a unique opportunity to reflect on the ongoing challenges in preventing the manufacture, import and export of mercury added cosmetics, while providing examples of concrete measures that can be implemented. Those comments will then form the basis for a report to be considered at the next COP, which will take place in 2025.  

Information should be submitted to the Minamata Secretariat, using the form, by 30 June 2024. This is an opportunity not to be missed, as it paves the way to addressing implementation and enforcement challenges at a global level, beyond the setting of regulations. 

In parallel to this, international projects and initiatives were set up, showing the growing interest of the international community to effectively address this issue. This includes the “Eliminating Mercury Skin Lightening Products” projects in Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka, led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from the Global Environment Facility, and executed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI),  working towards reducing the risk of exposure to mercury-added skin lightening products, raising awareness of the health risks associated with their use, developing model regulations to reduce their circulation, and halting production, trade, and distribution across domestic and international markets. A community of practice was also created to exchange information between project partners and relevant stakeholders. 

Towards a naturally colourful and toxic-free future  

Many groups in the world, such as ‘Women of Worth’ in India and the ‘Dark is Beautiful Campaign’, ‘Unfair & Lovely’ in Austin, USA or ‘Dark is Divine’ in Pakistan – have been playing a key role in reversing this trend and changing mindset. It also includes the Beautywell project, the Melanin Foundation or the Beauty Inside Out campaign, to only mention a few. They all seek to bring cultural change and make today’s societies more inclusive and toxic-free, with this common message that all colours are equally beautiful. 

At the occasion of the International Day of Actions for Women’s Health, we do wish the industry and regulators will take the side of the consumers and prevent 21st century mercury poisoning by working to protect health and achieve a toxic-free future, free from the discriminatory values rooted in centuries past.