4th July 2023

The problem with skin lightening

As well as often being dangerous and illegal, skin lightening cosmetics raise some important questions about the society we live in – and they should be on every TSO’s radar.

By Giles Speid
Team Manager, North West Westminster
Outside of London, colleagues may not necessarily be seeking out these products… but they are poison in a jar

Back in the mid-80s there was a band that went by the name Color Me Badd. Whilst I thought it was an unusual name for a pop group, the name stuck with me as I initially thought it was to do with skin colour.

During that period we were largely inspecting shops that had a number of dangerous unlicenced toys such as Teletubbies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and cosmetics. The area that fascinated me the most was cosmetics. I had a case against an importer who had imported thousands of unsafe skin lightening creams. I worked with the Chief Chemist at GlaxoSmithKline at the time as there were counterfeit versions of their product containing excessive hydroquinone. He explained the dangers and harm it caused by thinning the skin and different levels of toxicity that entered the blood stream. At the conclusion of our case, I issued a press release with the dangers associated with the use of this type of product. Upon further inspection, at the same premises over the following years, I discovered not just the same products but even more imports of a similar nature.

I once teased a trader in the London borough I was working in, “Why do you sell this poison?” whilst seizing his stock from under his counter. “Because they want the good jobs” was his reply. I was aware of this type of  thinking and it had me asking why some people are prepared to risk their health for the prospect of obtaining what is perceived to be a better position in life due to colourism. Where does that thought process come from?

It is a long-held view, backed up by statistical evidence related to jobs, homes and the judiciary, that if you have a more ‘European’ look, you would be considered more desirable and therefore be better positioned for whatever circumstance you may be facing. A mature woman in my office block described herself as having ‘high colour’ as she was of fair complexion. This type of colonial thinking and language has passed through the generations. She continues to believe this as she has witnessed the benefits and possible indoctrination through the media, adverts, film and TV.

Colonial hangover
My friends from the Indian diaspora have also informed me that skin colour can determine their place in society, including who they get to marry. During recent visits to Indonesia and Malaysia, I saw people walking with parasols and white powder on their faces seeking a porcelain look. This is considered the ideal appearance following these countries’ colonial past.

I have had several conversations with colleagues regarding the use of skin lightening creams in relation to an ongoing London Trading Standards project. In one current case, a recent seizure revealed that the importer not only brought in thousands of unsafe products but was producing skin lightening products herself too. There was no evidence of product testing or qualifications in the field of chemistry or biology. All she had was an unsuspecting market with an address label list of customers at the ready.

Paradoxically, the opposite situation also often arises. Environmental Health colleagues have visited and warned many salons of excessive sunbed use which is associated with an increased risk of skin damage, including premature ageing and skin cancer. It appears many people are looking for that ‘Fenty Beauty’ mid-range colour and are prepared to be damaged to get it. Whereas the person using excessive sunbeds is unlikely to be discriminated against, the person not using skin lightening cream believes they will be.

Phil Jenkins, who has been Port Compliance Officer at Hillingdon Trading Standards for 15 years, says: “People used to sneak these items into the country by sea in small amounts. Now they are coming by air. Importers are unafraid to bring in as much as 2.5 tonnes of these dangerous cosmetics as they are no longer considered a priority to be checked, in the same way that food is.”

There is no fear of reprisals and therefore the problem goes undetected until spotted by a vigilant TSO.

Outside of London, colleagues may not necessarily be seeking out these products in markets or areas frequented by certain demographics. Complaints about these products are rarely made, but they are poison in a jar.

Warped standards
Similar issues have arisen with hair straightening products which have in some cases led to alopecia. Afro hair continues to raise issues in the workplace and schools. School decisions and policies regarding having hair no longer than two inches for boys favours Western appearances and hairstyles.

That has led to decisions being considered discriminatory as a result of unconscious bias, even leading to pay-outs for discrimination. The thought that having something that grows out of your body naturally being considered offensive, has caused children to be excluded from school. In the corporate world the pressure and expected norm is to have short hair or at least wear your natural hair straight, or use a weave or wig of similar appearance.

The temptation to touch and feel the texture of someone else’s hair is not advised, especially without invitation. One TSO who had her hair straightened decided to return to her natural curls and was told by her manager that he preferred her to have her hair straight. This caused her angst as she naturally wondered if this was going to be a barrier to her having a successful career in the service. She eventually left that employment… with her natural curls. If this was ever raised as an unconscious bias issue with her former manager, she believes he would most likely have defended it as just banter. Well that’s funny… if only it was.

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