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Glossy is proud to present Unfair, a podcast about the global skin-lightening industry and everything it touches, from the demand for lighter skin to the beauty companies selling to it.
In episode two, Unfair covers the health problems and psychological harm these products pose to consumers at large. We hear from Minnesota and California state health department workers, the World Health Organization, and Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Unfair is hosted by Priya Rao, executive editor at Glossy, and produced by Digiday senior producer Pierre Bienaimé.
Subscribe to the Glossy Beauty Podcast now on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the podcast’s second episode.
SOUND: From London Trading Standards video: “I’m using powers under this legislation. If you obstruct us, that’s an offense. So it’s best to cooperate, obviously.”
What you’re hearing is from a store in southeast London, and the London Trading Standards is in the middle of a sting operation. A few mannequin heads look on as a man holds a pink package up for the camera.
SOUND: Now, this one is very interesting, just had this tested and it had the highest ever amount of hydroquinone in it that we’ve ever seen.
(We got this sound off of a video the agency put on YouTube, by the way). And hydroquinone is a pretty common ingredient in skin lightening products. In some doses, dermatologists will tell you, it can be part of a legitimate treatment. But it can be harmful, too, causing irritation or even, ironically, unnatural darkening of the skin. In the European Union, it’s been banned from use in cosmetics since 2001 (In the U.S., it can be bought over the counter in concentrations of up to 2 percent).
SOUND: More sound from the London Trading Standards video.
That’s Paul Gander. He’s an officer at the London Trading Standards. And this is actually his second time visiting this shop as a regulator. This time, he and his team have found what he calls a “semi-hidden storage area” stocked with illegal skin lighteners.
SOUND: There’s no ceiling to it, you have to get in on your hands and knees and within it. There’s lots of steroid based products and hydroquinone based products, one of which is one we bought before. And he recalled earlier on the man said he doesn’t sell it. So this is where they’re keeping it.
Until the pandemic hit, the London Trading Standards was doing five or six of these raids a year. In this one, they ended up seizing hundreds of products, which altogether were worth more than 10,000 British pounds. When they tested them in a lab, they found that a fifth of the products contained prohibited ingredients.
But it seems that breaking the law is worth the risk for many stores like this. We caught up with Paul ourselves.
GANDER: Yes, unfortunately, the demand is such, and the profit is such that there is a very high temptation to carry on offending. In my area, we’ve taken a shop to court three times now. Each time the fine gets bigger.
Paul says illegal skin lightening creams find a lot of demand in the U.K., because of its diverse populations.
GANDER: There’s always a demand for skin lightening products worldwide, and in the U.K. we’re no different because of the very different background of ethnic groups we’ve got in various communities up and down the country. In my particular area of London, it’s very much a West African and Afro-Caribbean community.
In the last five years, the London Trading Standards has participated in a few dozen cases against sellers. In one instance, a woman was charged for adding hydroquinone to store-bought beauty products in her own backyard. The U.K. takes this problem seriously. In 2018, someone even went to jail as a result.
GANDER: A trader was given a prison sentence of 20 months because he was on a suspended sentence from an earlier offense. And unfortunately, he broke that by selling again. He was the first U.K. trader to go to prison for this sort of offense and it made national television news.
The health risks of hydroquinone are a big reason for the crackdown, Paul says.
GANDER: Because of the long term damage it can cause if you use it for all-over skin lightening. Some products are ideally for localized blemishes, but when you start rubbing it all over you and everyday for whitening purposes, that’s when long term health damage can occur, and that’s why the EU banned it.
This episode of Unfair is about the health repercussions behind some skin lightening products, including permanent skin issues and even medical comas. It’s about what governments and tech companies are doing — and what they aren’t — to tackle the problem. And it’s also about a different kind of damage caused by this part of the beauty business. One that’s more psychological — the kind that comes from ads, marketing and product packaging that tells consumers: lighter skin is the key to a happier life.
This is Unfair, a podcast brought to you by Glossy. I’m Priya Rao.
Hydroquinone is one thing. But there was another ingredient found in the stash that Paul Gander uncovered in London: mercury. And its effects can be devastating.
VICKERS: Unfortunately, mercury has been known to be toxic for decades. And even more unfortunately, it’s still not fully addressed.
That’s Carolyn Vickers. She’s in charge of chemical safety and health at the World Health Organization, which is part of the UN.
VICKERS: Mercury in skin lightening products has been known to cause kidney damage — also central nervous system effects. So it can give you symptoms like insomnia, irritability, depression, even difficulty walking, which can be difficult for a medical practitioner or the person to even identify the cause of. Unfortunately, even in countries where these products have been banned, such as the U.S., there are still repeated reports of people presenting with these kinds of symptoms because they’ve been using skin lightening products.
Mercury is heavily regulated, like Carolyn said. An international convention adopted in 2013 bans the manufacture, import or export of mercury-containing products, with few exceptions. And that ban was supposed to be implemented by 2020. You know, as in, this year?
I asked Carolyn about that.
RAO: So considering that we’re in that phase out date now, what is the significance of that ban and the import and export of those products now?
VICKERS: Well, one of the challenges of skin lightening products is that they’re often manufactured by backyard operations, cottage industries… And so compliance with national laws has been very challenging. Many countries have actually banned these products but they found it difficult to control them.
And yeah, that includes the United States, which signed the agreement seven years ago. California has had more than 60 mercury cream poisonings in the last decade, according to the state’s department of health, the CDPH. Lori Copan is a research scientist there, and she told us about one particularly bad case.
COPAN: In California, there was a woman who was in a coma from having used an adulterated cream that was purchased, and then mercury was added. And that was a particularly harmful form of mercury, and that led to a coma for her. And she’s still in the coma, and that was last year. And so that highlights the incredible importance of trying to reduce the availability of these creams. We don’t know why methyl mercury was added. That’s still a topic of investigation.
Mercury is often added to consumer products, which in California’s case is typically done in Mexico. Those products then show up on store shelves.
COPAN: We have visited numerous stores over the last year — well, before Covid-19 — and have found creams in many different stores. And so we can truly say that the creams are available in brick and mortar stores; from Cambodia, China, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand. We have to find a way to stop the importation of these products. And that is difficult as some of them come in people’s suitcases, or they carry them on the planes or in their cars across the border. So there has to be some type of well thought out, deep strategy to try to limit the importation of these creams.
Lori expressed frustration with her own department. California isn’t doing enough, she said, describing the regulation system as “broken.”
COPAN: You know, I’ve been frustrated for many years, I’ve been looking at these products for about 10 years now. And it’s really clear that we have to go bottom up. You know, because we have seen numerous poisoning cases in California, I feel that it is a betrayal of what we’re trying to do as the California Department of Public Health, which is in our mission statement — it says to protect the health of all Californians.
It’s worth noting that New York City’s department of health has done a bit more — ordering some businesses to stop selling contaminated products, and even getting in touch with foreign consulates.
The Food and Drug Administration, too, is alive to this problem. It maintains a “red list” of products that can be seized. And last year it issued an import alert adding a few companies from around the world to that list. One of them is called Golden Pearl. It’s a Pakistani company. And sure enough, one of its products was found in Sacramento. The FDA even arrested a woman near Fresno, California, last year. Allegedly, she had been smuggling creams from Mexico, and marketing them on Facebook.
But here’s the thing: this is a broad problem without a single, clear target. Skin lightening products run the gamut as far as appearance and packaging go. Some of them aren’t labeled at all. They just look like little jars of paint. Others look like traditional products, but they’re from companies you probably haven’t heard of. And some even look like drug store products, like the tub of Pond’s that was then mixed with mercury, as in the case of the woman who fell into a coma.
But why is mercury in these products in the first place? One reason may be that unfortunately, it works. Like hydroquinone, mercury messes with a skin’s ability to create melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. So your skin is going to get lighter from using it, even if it’s at a terrible cost.
XIONG: We certainly are at risk.
Michael Xiong is especially familiar with the effects of mercury. He works at Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, which does house calls where the use of mercury is suspected. The way they figure this out is through a state’s department of health program that administers urine tests on pregnant women, who of course agree to this. When a sample shows excessive mercury, the woman who was tested is asked: would you be open to city workers visiting your home?
That’s where Mike comes in.
XIONG: It’s been wonderful. A lot of these families are gracious and wonderful to let us into their homes and open themselves up to questions and stuff that they might be afraid to, you know, let other people know that they’re using these products.
He brings a mercury analyzer, by a company called Lumex.
XIONG: The Lumex itself is like 20 pounds. And there’s a hose that connects to that as well. And at the end it looks like a little breathing nozzle. So it looks like I’m shooting something, and it makes a loud humming noise. So it looks like I’m going like a Ghostbuster out to these homes. So people are like, ‘oh, looks like you’re ghost-busting outside.’
Unlike the phantoms in Ghostbusters, though, mercury is tough to spot. It’s not particularly visible, and it’s odorless. But it can actually hang around in the air, and put an entire household at risk. Last year, Mike found that a home’s laundry room was a super-spreader for mercury. The product would get on the hands, the hands would go on the clothes… you get the idea.
Another time, Mike opened a product’s lid and his analyzer’s reading maxed out. He then spoke with the woman he was visiting.
XIONG: she said, ‘oh, no wonder.’ Because every time she used it on her arms, she felt a burning sensation.
Often Mike will have a translator with him. When he said “we certainly are at risk,” earlier, he was specifically referring to the Hmong community, of which he is a part. So for him, what he does is personal.
One time, he went to a Spanish-speaking household. And as the translator was telling the family that skin lightening products were the problem…
XIONG: And I could see their faces, you know, just eyes opening and going, ‘oh my goodness, I did not know that.’ And they became a little scared. They were wondering, making sure they weren’t in trouble or anything. And we told them they weren’t in trouble, there weren’t any legal issues. And I’m like, ‘no, no, no, you’re okay. You’re not in trouble. We’re here for your safety.’ And then once they learned more information, we gave them different brochures in their language about the products. They became more aware and as of the last time I spoke with them, they wanted to be champions and spread the news out to their family members or friends who are using the products or considering using the products to not use them.
The problem is getting some national attention, too. Minnesota congresswoman Betsy McCollum wants to give the FDA 1 million dollars to educate the public on the dangers of these products.
Here she is addressing part of the House back in July.
MCCOLLUM: I’d like to thank the committee for including report language providing funding for the FDA to address cosmetic safety, specifically skin lightening products that are targeted towards women and girls of color. These products often contain dangerous, illegal levels of mercury which can lead to serious health consequences, including damage to the kidneys, immune and nervous systems, as well as skin damage.
McCollum’s colleague Ilhan Omar, whose district includes all of Minneapolis, wants to give more funding to the CDC, too, to study mercury exposure from commercial skin lighteners.
But you might be wondering: are corporations really responsible for these especially dangerous products? They don’t appear to be using mercury, or hydroquinone in reckless concentrations. Unilever, for instance, said Fair & Lovely doesn’t contain mercury, hydroquinone or steroids. So how are these brands responsible for the more anonymous companies — or the bootleggers — that do?
Fairness creams made by the Unilevers and L’Oréals of the world probably won’t hurt. In fact, they might not even lighten your skin. But these companies do push the idea that dark skin is less than ideal, and that since you can change that, why wouldn’t you?
When we spoke to representative Omar, she had a lot to say about the psychological harm these products cause.
OMAR: I mean this issue really is personal to so many of us who are brown and black in the world. And it is important as we fight the anti-blackness, anti-brown narratives, that are oppressive to many societies. We also fight the oppressions that we have internalized when it comes to our sense of what’s beautiful and how to understand what our worth should be as we interface with the world.
Representative Omar says that this stuff was everywhere when she was growing up. And yeah, when you’re exposed to ads about how lighter is better, that can take a toll.
OMAR: You know, I am a mother of two beautiful young daughters. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family that celebrated our beauty and I want to raise them in a family that celebrates their beauty. But also I want to raise them in in a society that is different than the one I was raised in — that fully, not just embraces them, but celebrates their beauty in ways in which my generation and the generations that are older than me has not had the opportunities to.
KARNANI: I think that issue revolves not around physical harm, but around social harm.
That’s Aneel Karnani. He teaches at the University of Michigan’s business school. And one of the topics he focuses on is the role of business in society. In a lot of his writing, he’s criticized Unilever, and its Fair & Lovely cream in particular, about what he calls social harm.
KARNANI: The real issue is: does it do social harm? And I think it does. It perpetuates a racist and sexist bias in society. Now, it is true that Unilever did not create this bias in society. But I think what Unilever does is it perpetuates this bias. Oh, it is one of the most heavily advertised products in many of these countries. And so it perpetuates this bias that as a woman, especially, if you are dark, your prospects are not very good — either in terms of a job or in terms of romance. So imagine a young girl growing up in India who is somewhat dark, and she’s constantly bombarded with these ads telling her that she is not as good. It’s obviously not good for our self-esteem or sense of self-worth here. So I think it’s that social harm that it is doing that’s problematic.
Some countries are acting on this societal part of the problem.
In India itself, the government banned two Fair & Lovely TV ads in 2003. In one of them, a woman uses the cream, getting fairer and landing a job as an air hostess as a result. (Of course, that product still does huge business in India.)
SOUND: From Fair & Lovely commercial.
In 2014, in fact, the country’s Advertising Standards Council banned any advertisements that would depict dark skin as inferior. In an email to us from the council, they wrote this:
VOICE 1: “While the skin lightening industry has existed for decades in India, there is a growing debate around it. Many feel that such products are creating a halo of sorts around fair skin and, by extension, creating an impression that darker skin is unattractive. How that debate will ultimately pan out remains to be seen and this holds true not only for India but worldwide.”
In a paper of his, Karnani considers four mechanisms for regulating the industry. Those are corporate social responsibility, self-regulation by industry, activism by civil society, and government regulation.
He’s kind of given up on the first one:
KARNANI: Relying on social responsibility is not going to do the trick here. We are being too naive if we think that these companies will change voluntarily. And I think this is the sort of thing that society should object to, and we should do it through activism or through government policy.
To talk more about the activism that has led to some change, we’re going back to Minnesota.
ADAWE: Sure, yeah, my name is Amira Adawe. I am the executive director of the Beautywell Project — that is nonprofit that aims to end skin lighting practices and colorism.
Amira Adawe also hosts a weekend program on KALY, a Somali-American radio station.
It’s all about the politics of skin color.
SOUND: from Amira Adawe’s program on KALY.
Last year, she led an effort against everyone’s go-to online store: Amazon. The website carried skin lighteners that actually contained mercury (!). Amira knows this because she partnered with a few groups to test the products. So she went to a big Amazon facility in Shakopee, just outside Minneapolis, with a petition and lots of signatures in hand.
ADAWE: We collected petitions, 25,000 petitions from different individuals who really were interested in addressing this chemical exposure as relates to mercury exposure, but also those who are concerned about Amazon promoting colorism.
Amazon dropped the products that Amira complained about. But the episode just goes to show that if we’re talking about a dangerous trade like skin lightening, there’s no getting around a thing like the internet.
Amira has also worked on testing products bought on eBay. I asked for her thoughts about these online marketplaces in general.
ADAWE: I mean, they have a huge responsibility. To me they are all promoting colorism, whether they pretend that they don’t know or they know. They are at the end of the day promoting colorism. They’re creating toxicity in our society and in our environment. It’s not only human exposure, but also to the environment. So they’re contributing all of these public health issues and environmental justice issues.
Amazon declined to be interviewed. They pointed us to a policy against “skin creams containing mercury.” But Amazon wouldn’t tell us how confident they are that there are no longer any mercury-containing products on the platform.
A spokesperson at eBay told us that they’ve been removing many of these products from their website, which works mostly like an auction house.
Year-to-date, they said, eBay blocked over 10,000 listings for prohibited skin lightening products. They even worked with Paul Gander and his team, in the U.K, who we heard from at the start of this episode.
eBay also said that they put filters in place last December — both automatic and human ones — to take certain products down.
When we pointed a product out to them in August — an “intense skin whitening oil” going for $40 — they at first told us it was fair game. But when we followed up last week, they said it was taken down. And yeah, it’s gone. We checked.
But you’ll still find a whole bunch of skin whitening products just from typing “skin whitening” in eBay’s search bar. They even carry pills that claim to whiten your skin. Amazon does too, by the way.
To get a better picture of just how much is available online, I decided to talk to my colleague Liz Flora. She writes about wellness and beauty here at Glossy.
FLORA: Okay, so when you search for skin lightening on Amazon, the first thing that comes up on that search term is an ad for the skincare brand Murad. And it says ‘stock up on hydroquinone before FDA regulation.’ So you can tell that this is a sponsored post specifically by this brand. There’s definitely brands buying ads against this term.
RAO: Yeah, Liz, can you explain what you mean by ‘buying ads against?’
FLORA: So Amazon gives brands the option to basically do what brands can do on Google. When they want to have their product featured on a certain search term, they can buy a sponsored post that appears above all of the other product listings. So those posts are labeled as ‘sponsored.’ And then you can tell that those brands have specifically purchased an ad to appear on that search term.
RAO: So do you think it’s problematic, you know, especially for brands like Paula’s Choice or Murad. They’re buying against the term hydroquinone when it is an ingredient that has a lot of issues with it above 2% here in the US.
FLORA: They’re definitely trying to get that market. They know that there’s a large demand for these products under that search term, and they’ve made the calculation that, ‘hey, even though my product doesn’t have this specific ingredient, I want to use this to target this market that’s looking for these skin lightening products.’
RAO: Totally, totally. I assumed that that was going to be like a third party seller. Obviously, it’s brands that we know and we identify with like Murad or Paula’s Choice — American brands — that are buying against this term. But then there’s brands that we’ve never even heard of.
FLORA: Yeah, some of them don’t have addresses and some of them do. It is interesting to see that these products are coming from all over the world. I saw one set of skin whitening pills that said it’s from Ukraine. There’s another set of whitening capsules, herbal supplement that are distributed from Texas. There’s another one coming from China. So it’s really an international market and there’s sellers from all over the world, basically, distributing these things on Amazon to an American market.
RAO: And I know when we spoke to Amazon or reached out to them, they told us that cosmetic labels and detail pages must be labeled in English with the name and the address of the manufacturer or the packer or the distributor. And so I’m surprised that this is so blatant, in a way.
FLORA: Yeah, if you search for Pond’s whitening, you can see products come up like Pond’s white beauty daily facial foam, Pond’s white beauty lightening facial foam. But basically anyone can go to any country where this stuff is being sold and purchase it and bring it back and sell it as a third party seller in the U.S. market. So for example, this Pond’s white beauty facial foam face wash is shipped from Amazon. So this seller, who is based in Thailand has shipped it to an Amazon warehouse and then Amazon will be distributing it. So Amazon is serving as the warehouse for some of these skin whitening products.
Money is a big part of this whole story. You can regulate something all you want, but if there’s money to be made, people and companies are going to get involved — whether that’s in stores, or markets, or person-to-person, or online.
A lot of the people we spoke to didn’t just talk about tackling the supply end, which is critical, of course. They wanted to change the demand side, too, through programs that would teach women especially that they should love their skin just the way it is.
Sonya Lunder works at the Sierra Club, an environmental organization.
LUNDER: I’d say the most important thing about that is that racism and colorism and intense pressures to lighten your skin is a global phenomenon, right? No one region has the corner on that market.
Sonya worked closely with Amira Adawe to test the products they bought on Amazon and eBay.
LUNDER: And it turns out to be a very small number of companies who are responsible for much of the global sale of these highly toxic products.
But Sonya thinks racism and colorism are the bigger issues here. Address them, and you just might be able to undermine the dangerous side of the skin lightening industry.
LUNDER: Simply making an ingredient illegal is not enough to actually avert these incredibly harmful exposures. I think that the thing that I’ve learned from Amira is that this work can’t just be targeting the individual and telling someone ‘you should stop using this product because it hurts you.’ We really need to think about the social and cultural context in which primarily women are really pressured, in many cases by friends and family and loved ones, to conform to beauty standards that are very damaging — and not just damaging physically.
Pulling that off, when colorism and racism have deep, historical roots, is another story. And it’s one we’ll be getting into next week.
Next time, on Unfair, we look at the history of the skin lightening industry, including in one country that has stood up to it most.
VOICE 2: So in really the final months of the apartheid regime in South Africa — so the white minority rule — the South African legislature passed what are still really the world’s toughest and most expansive regulations against skin lighteners.
Unfair is brought to you by Glossy. Our producer is Pierre Bienaimé, who also produced the music.
Subscribe to the Glossy Beauty Podcast now, wherever you get your podcasts.