A 22-year-old call center agent from the Philippines, J.R.,* tells me that he takes whitening capsules and uses a soap and facial cream that both claim to have whitening effects. Being lighter, he says, will make him more “noticeable,” boosting his chances for promotion or better employment. When I point out that the US$1 a day he spends on the whitening products makes up a large chunk of the US$12 he earns daily, he replies: “It’s an investment.”
J.R. is part of the growing market for skin whitening products around the world. Shopping malls, cosmetics shops, and online retailers sell a vast number of different soaps, lotions, creams, and more, catering to women and men. Some of them target particular body parts: the face, the hands, the underarm, or even the vagina. From Manila to Mumbai and Jakarta to Johannesburg, celebrities endorse skin lightening or bleaching products in larger-than-life billboards, promising “whiter skin from within” or offering to make users “fair and handsome.” In the Philippines, where I live and work as a medical anthropologist, even the national basketball league has an official skin whitening product.
This trend isn’t harmless. People who are already socially or financially marginalized may end up spending significant amounts of money on products they can ill afford. The whole notion of desiring paler skin relies upon and emphasizes toxic ideas of white superiority. And many skin whiteners are associated with proven skin damage or other health risks. Inorganic mercury, for example, described by the World Health Organization as a “common ingredient found in skin lightening soaps and creams” often used in Africa and Asia, can cause kidney damage. Hydroquinone, found in skin exfoliants, including J.R.’s facial lotion, has been flagged by regulatory agencies around the world due to safety concerns.
Some countries, such as Ghana and Rwanda, have banned skin whitening products altogether. Yet whitening remains popular—and is big business. According to industry estimates, the global skin whitening industry is expected to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.
As both a physician and a medical anthropologist, I recently dove into this issue as part of the Chemical Youth Project: a multi-country study that looks at the roles of chemicals (from energy drinks to perfumes and vitamins) in the everyday lives of young people seeking to “boost pleasure, moods, sexual performance, appearance, and health.” From 2012 to 2015, our team, led by medical anthropologist Anita Hardon of the University of Amsterdam, interviewed over 400 young men and women in different parts of the Philippines—including students, young professionals, tour guides, pedicab drivers, and construction workers. Whitening products were very popular among our informants, with more than half reporting that they had used them at least once in their life. I decided to explore the topic more, carrying out 10 focus group discussions specifically about whitening. Where does the desire to whiten skin come from, I wanted to know, and is it changing?
The idea of altering skin tone has been around since ancient times. In imperial Rome, people idealized “a pale, smooth complexion” and used various substances as skin whiteners—from lead shavings to crocodile dung—many of which were toxic or poisonous. In Medieval Japan, literary works like the Tale of Genji celebrated white beauty, and Japanese women and men applied various products—from rice powder to white lead—in pursuit of a skin tone that was “not milky white but translucent, like a polished stone.”
In these and other cultures, whiteness signified purity, beauty, and high status. American anthropologist Nina Jablonski writes that “untanned skin was a symbol of the privileged class that was spared from outdoor labor. … Dark-skinned people were deprecated because they were of the laboring class that worked out in the sun.” While this explanation is plausible, it probably doesn’t explain the trend in its entirety; the extent to which, and the reasons why, skin whiteness has been valued has varied across place and time.
Arguably, it was during the height of colonialism and the rise of “scientific racism” (the pseudoscientific idea that empirical evidence supports notions of racial superiority and inferiority) from the 18th to the 19th century that white skin became even more desired. Whiteness came to signify not just personal privilege but also belonging to a privileged group; dark(er) skin, meanwhile, was linked to racial inferiority and slavery. Whether in apartheid South Africa, the segregationist U.S., or the U.S. colonial Philippines (where Americans called Filipinos “little brown brothers”), whiteness, in the words of critical race scholar and law professor Cheryl Harris, “became the quintessential property for personhood.”
The desire for tanned skin among white-skinned people might seem like a contradictory, opposite trend. But it is not. Tanning has its own complicated history, linked in part to the ability of richer Europeans and Americans to vacation in sunnier climates, and to early 20th-century notions of the health benefits of ultraviolet light. Importantly, the desire for a temporary color change as a signifier of health or prosperity is fundamentally different than the more deeply ingrained quest for more permanent alteration. While ads for whitening often have racist undertones, those for tanning do not deprecate “whiteness” or celebrate “brownness” or “blackness.”
Today, over a century after the zenith of scientific racism, the aesthetic standard of “lighter is better” has persisted, particularly in the “global south.” L. Ayu Saraswati, a scholar of Indonesian society, calls the modern trend a search for “cosmopolitan whiteness”—a fairness of skin that opens the door to international social mobility. “Colorism,” as sociologist Margaret Hunter calls it, “privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market.” The Chilean anthropologist Alexander Lipschütz described this situation as a “pigmentocracy.”
The value of paler skin—both perceived and real—has been documented in various ways around the world. In a 2006 study, economist Arthur Goldsmith and colleagues found that across several U.S. cities “mean hourly wages … rise as skin tone lightens, moving from US$11.72 for dark-skinned blacks to US$13.23 for blacks with medium skin shade” to US$14.72 for “light-skinned blacks” and US$15.94 for the “average white respondent.” Based on her research in Brazil, anthropologist Kia Caldwell describes in her 2006 book how the phrase boa aparência (good appearance) in job requirements was often a code for women with lighter skin and served as an exclusionary criteria for Afro-Brazilian women, many of whom no longer bothered to apply for such jobs.
All of this meshes with the views of the people I spoke to in the Philippines. They often used the word “investment” in explaining their skin whitening practices and saw whiteness as an enabler of better opportunities. Troy, for example, a 19-year-old engineering student, noted that one particular classmate’s white skin seemed to give him an advantage. “Three of us were in the same on-the-job training in a factory,” he told me. “We came from the same class, but my friend, he’s the first to get noticed because he had a different skin tone. He’s always the first to get called … and that’s because he has lighter skin.” Troy told me that he uses a whitening soap made of papaya and an umbrella against sunlight. When he plays basketball, he only plays in indoor courts: a preference shared by many of his peers.
Similarly, Laarni, a 20-year-old tourism student in Puerto Princesa, the Philippines, credited her lighter skin for her recent victory in a local beauty pageant and hopes it will be the ticket to her dream job of flight attendant. “Of course, [to be a flight attendant] you need to meet the height requirement and a college degree,” she said. “But when they look at you and you have fair, beautiful skin, you already have a big advantage.”
The perceived attractiveness of whiter skin carries a strong appeal. In a qualitative survey in Tanzania by psychologist Kelly Lewis and colleagues, a 40-year-old teacher offers a simple reason for lightening her skin: “I use skin bleaching creams to avoid my husband from being attracted by other girls. … After my marriage, I intended to maintain my beauty to make my husband proceed loving me.” In a 2017 study of Nepali men, Matthew Maycock describes how the word tājā (fresh) is evolving to describe whiter skin as part of a new form of desirable masculinity.
My own informants in the Philippines also saw fairer skin as adding to their physical attractiveness, but the men were shy about their skin whitening practices. Unlike the Nepali men, they perceived caring too much for their skin as “unmanly.” One of my interviewees recalled his college dormmates discreetly applying whitening lotions in the common shower room late at night when no one was watching.
Others were openly proud of their whitening achievements, not just of themselves but also of their family members. A pediatric surgeon in Manila told me about the relatively affluent parents of a 1-year-old baby who came to his clinic and greeted him with this question: “Look doctor, don’t you notice how whiter our baby is?” It turned out that the baby underwent an infusion of intravenous glutathione so that he would look “cuter” and more “presentable.” This sort of treatment is now spreading in the U.S., costing US$150–400 dollars per session—and raising questions in both countries as to its safety and efficacy.
Still others I met used whitening products but claimed they were not for the whiteness per se but for cleanliness or smoothness. Others said they were striving for “normal” or “natural” skin. Fraink White, a video blogger, was similarly quoted in an article in The Guardian as saying: “Just because I lighten my skin, does not mean I want to be white. I still look African American by my features; I’m not trying to change that. I just want to return my skin to the color and texture of the skin usually covered by clothing, which is less exposed to the sun. That’s my natural color.” These explanations gloss over the fact that people implicitly consider whiter, paler skin to be cleaner, smoother, and more “natural,” speaking to how the desire for whiteness itself has become naturalized.
When I asked Jenna, a 24-year-old mall worker from Puerto Princesa, about the possibility that many of the products she uses don’t actually work, she said that there’s “nothing to lose” in trying them anyway. But, of course, this is not true. Aside from the economic costs and health risks related to these products, the market for them implicitly preaches the virtues of whiteness, adding another layer of inequality for people whose gender, class, or ethnicity already places them in a position of marginality.
Fortunately, globalization is also spreading ideas and sensibilities that interrogate the value of whiteness. As Euan, one of my informants who now works in Dubai, told me: “Whitening creams are a product of colonial mentality, which is why I’m against them.” Curiously, nationalist pride and globalized liberation come together in these views. In a widely shared blog post, DePaul University student and black rights activist Charlene Haparimwi wrote: “I’m starting to see myself and people with my dark skin tone in makeup ads, on the runway, in commercials, in beauty campaigns, and more. … My black is beautiful. … I am an African Queen, a dark-skinned goddess, a melanin princess.”
Perhaps an increasing awareness of internalized ideas about whiteness and their origins in the history of racism, combined with the modern push against discrimination based on skin color, will increase acceptance of all skin tones around the world.
But there is a long way to go to overturn this long-running chromatic hierarchy and to change ideas that run so deep many people aren’t even conscious of holding them. While I was doing a focus group discussion among students at an elite private university in Manila, one of them showed his tan lines. “I just went surfing last weekend,” he proudly explained. His sunscreen, it turned out, also had a whitening effect—a feature he claimed not to know about. “I don’t care really about my skin color,” he insisted. “But,” he added later, “I also don’t want to be too dark.”
* All names of interviewees have been changed to protect people’s privacy.