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Colorism, an insidious form of prejudice that favors lighter skin over darker skin, remains a largely ignored issue in society. This pervasive bias poses significant harm to people of color by perpetuating the notion that lighter skin is inherently superior.

The beauty industry often promotes skin-lightening products specifically to women of color, inadvertently reinforcing these deeply ingrained beliefs and fostering a sense of inferiority among individuals with darker skin tones. Furthermore, the usage of these products can have severe health consequences.

On July 13, the Departments of Dermatology and Preventative Medicine at Northwestern University conducted a study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, titled “Colorism Attitudes and Use of Skin Lightening Agents in the United States.”

The objective of the study was to examine whether women of color utilized skin-lightening products, assess their attitudes toward colorism, and evaluate their personal perceptions of their own skin color.

Study shows impact of colorism on skin lightening

The study surveyed 455 participants, of whom 97 (21.3%) admitted to using skin-lightening products. Among these participants, 73.2% utilized such products to address conditions like hyperpigmentation, while 26.8% employed them for general skin-lightening purposes. 

A concerning 45.4% of individuals employing skin-lightening products were unaware of the ingredients present in the products they used, and a notable 35.1% used products containing hydroquinone.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, the combination of hydroquinone and topical steroids impedes melanin production. The global market for skin-lightening products, often containing harmful ingredients, is projected to reach a staggering $12.3 billion by 2027. 

In 2022, the FDA released a comprehensive report outlining its warnings to companies selling illegal over-the-counter cosmetic products that contain hydroquinone.

The report highlighted the detrimental effects of hydroquinone when used excessively and without the guidance of a dermatologist by stating, “FDA has received reports of serious side effects including skin rashes, facial swelling, and ochronosis (discoloration of skin) from the use of skin lightening products containing hydroquinone. FDA advises consumers not to use these products due to the potential harm they may cause, including ochronosis which may be permanent.”

Colorism attitudes persist among many users

Furthermore, the study exploring the utilization of skin-lightening agents revealed that participants who used these products exhibited higher overall colorism attitude scores compared to those who abstained from their use. The survey, administered through ResearchMatch—an online health registry created by the National Institutes of Health—measured colorism in relation to the use of skin-lightening products.

The results indicated that individuals utilizing such products were more likely to strongly agree with statements such as “lighter skin tone is more beautiful” and “lighter skin tone increases one’s job opportunities.”

The study’s conclusion delves into the profound societal implications of colorism, which drive individuals to purchase skin-lightening products by stating, “Attitudes of colorism—the system of inequality that views lighter skin as more beautiful and advantageous—are often propagated by social media and popular culture, driving individuals to participate in potentially risky skin-lightening behaviors.”

The roots of colorism

The historical roots of colorism run deep, stemming from slavery, when it was employed as a means to create division among enslaved individuals. Enslaved people with lighter skin were unjustly perceived as superior and granted preferential treatment compared to those with darker complexions.

Today, colorism continues to afflict Black Americans across various domains, including education, the workplace, social settings, and even when seeking healthcare or encountering the criminal justice system.

The study conducted by Northwestern University sheds light on the prevalence of skin-lightening product usage among women of color and the strong correlation between such usage and colorism.

These findings emphasize the need to address and dismantle colorist beliefs that have been deeply ingrained in society by promoting the celebration of diverse skin tones.