Aesthetic Dermatology Update

Colorism and dermatology


With the world currently really listening and engaged (hopefully) on making positive changes with regards to racism and systemic racial injustices, skin color has come to the forefront. Racism because of skin color has been an unfortunate part of our history and foundation of the United States with a capitalist society built and thriving on the profits of slavery, and a democracy founded on equality – unless you had black skin. These issues are at the forefront in the United States, but have also significantly impacted other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and South America having a significant African slave trade history and impacts, with Brazil currently facing the same systemic racial injustices and police brutality among black men, and King Leopold II of Belgium slaughtering an estimated 10-15 million Congolese people in the name of colonialism, slavery, and robbing resources (natural resources as well as servitude) in the Congo as late as the early 1900s.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley, a dermatologist who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley

These are just a few of the many historical examples of racial injustice, which remains ingrained in many parts of our society today. With this worldwide history, it has been advantageous for people to have lighter skin with regards to money, politics, jobs, education, the justice system, modeling/acting opportunities and contracts, home ownership, and opportunities for generational wealth for years to come. It has ingrained some unfortunate beliefs among some that having lighter skin is better, advantageous, and will make them more desirable or more beautiful.

Colorism, its social impact, and consequences on the beauty industry with skin-whitening products is evident all over the world, particularly parts of Asia (especially South Korea and China), India, and across the African continent. It is estimated that 77% of women in Nigeria and 55% of women in China use bleaching creams to achieve overall skin lightening. Unilever’s Fair & Lovely skin-whitening cream has long been a popular over-the-counter product in India, with an estimated market worth of 270 billion rupees ($4 billion USD). On June 25, 2020, Unilever vowed to rename and rebrand Fair & Lovely. With such an offensive name for a product that further promotes colorism, this is an effort in the right direction and has been a long time coming since its debut in 1975. Unilever’s Fair and Lovely Foundation for women’s causes still exists, and has not been renamed at the time of this writing.

Controversy remains on whether this product and other products such as these should exist for the purposes they are used for. Johnson & Johnson has decided that it will no longer produce and sell the Neutrogena Fine Fairness line, sold only in Asia and the Middle East, and the Clean & Clear Fairness line, sold in India. There are arguments to the contrary that halting production of skin-lightening products altogether may result in an influx of unsafe alternatives.

As dermatologists, we use skin-lightening products appropriately for the purposes of treating skin conditions such as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and photoaging. This is where the use of such products should largely end. While it is up to individuals about what they do with their skin and their bodies, we, as health care skin professionals, should be furthering the notion that all skin colors and types are beautiful. Moreover, we should not be encouraging the use of these products for overall skin whitening. Part of the issue is that these products are available often at high concentrations over the counter or in the illegal market, especially in parts of Asia and Africa where colorism is more common and skin whitening is more commonly practiced. The dangers are not only the risk of ochronosis with high concentrations or long term use of hydroquinone, but also what the Centre for Science and Environment found in a 2014 study, that 44% of the skin “fairness” creams in India contained mercury, which is illegal and a health concern.

Dr. Lily Talakoub, McLean (Va.) Dermatology and Skin Care Center

Dr. Lily Talakoub

In my practice, I have also had patients (several originally from Nigeria) who have admitted to long term use of skin-bleaching products for the purposes of all over face- and body-skin lightening who now suffer from very sensitive skin and experience bouts of eczematous dermatitis from time to time, despite having stopped using lightening cream. While there are adverse physical effects resulting from the use of these topicals for this purpose, the effects on the psyche are what concern me the most.

The beauty industry has also been an unfortunate part of furthering thoughts and attitudes concerning colorism over the years with lighter skin and Caucasian ideals being set as standards of beauty. One of many examples is a deodorant ad in the Middle East with the tagline “White is Purity” on a woman, which was pulled by Nivea in 2017 after it was slammed as racist. Another is the 2017 Dove ad for body wash that showed a smiling black woman peel off her brown shirt to reveal a white woman in a lighter-color shirt.

A shift has occurred in recent years with more ethnic images of beauty appearing in magazines and film. However, such opportunities are still less plentiful, pay discrepancies still occur, and sexual objectification of women of color as opposed to beautification is still rampant. As such, it is also up to us to do our part in studying and utilizing ethnic and racial differences in skin and beauty to maximize our efforts in promoting what is inherently beautiful as opposed to one standard of beauty. The education begins with the images we see, what we teach our children, loving ourselves, and as doctors, being knowledgeable about the right aesthetic choices for patients with different skin colors and types.

Dr. Wesley and Dr. Talakoub are cocontributors to this column. Dr. Wesley practices dermatology in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dr. Talakoub is in private practice in McLean, Va. This month’s column is by Dr. Wesley. Write to them at [email protected]. They had no relevant disclosures.

Next Article: