A centuries-old cosmetic practice has evolved into a worldwide epidemic of potentially harmful skin bleaching, according to a specialist in skin of color dermatology and pigmentation disorders.
The epidemic has its origin in cultural beliefs, stereotypes, and myths that help perpetuate the belief that lighter skin is a desirable trait, more desirable than darker skin. The belief system has fueled a worldwide market for skin lightening or bleaching products, many of them unapproved or unregulated and potentially dangerous. The global market for the products was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2020 and is expected to exceed $12 billion by 2027.
Advertising and marketing reinforce the cultural beliefs and stereotypes with product names such as "Fair and Lovely" and "Fair and Handsome," said Seemal R. Desai, MD, a Dallas-based specialist in skin of color and pigmentary disorders.
"The cultural beliefs that promote the practice of skin bleaching date back centuries and deeply affect many of our patients with skin of color," said Desai, of the UT Southwestern Medical Center and medical director of a private dermatology practice for patients with skin of color. "It's going to take time to change these deeply rooted cultural values and psychological associations with lighter skin tones. However, we want to educate patients about the dangers of skin bleaching [that is] strictly for the sake of achieving lighter skin."
During the American Academy of Dermatology virtual meeting, Desai addressed the cultural, psychological, and safety aspects of skin bleaching. Perpetrated and perpetuated by myths and sociocultural pressures, the belief that lighter skin makes a person more desirable can cause lasting psychological effects, and the quest to achieve it can be potentially dangerous.