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Skin lightening in countries like India, the Philippines, and China is often linked to the ideas of protecting your skin from the sun, revealing a better, whiter you, and connecting paler skin with marriageability or attractiveness.The Korean market is often interested in looking “porcelain” or youthful.Those active ingredients vary from things you’d find in the kitchen to something like hydroquinone, which is only allowed in very low levels for nonprescription skin care.(Prescription skin lighteners can include more of that active ingredient.) Skin bleachers often have more potent ingredients like mercury or steroids, some of which are banned in certain countries, including the US.“When you have hyperpigmentation, you can actually bleach, meaning you’re preventing and interfering with the skin’s ability to make pigment,” she says.“Lightening is a bit different where you’re not bleaching or preventing the skin from making its pigment, but what you’re trying to do is to get the basic pigment to leave a little bit faster, sort of lift the stain, but you’re not interfering with the body’s pigment mechanism.” In other words, bleaching products will make it difficult to tan, since they affect your skin’s ability to create color.”The racial coding of these ads isn’t as blatant as “White Is Purity,” but it is representative of the way skin care companies subtly calibrate their language when trying to market whitening products.
(And it’s difficult to find brands that don’t engage in this sort of doublespeak with over-the-counter products, partly because so many beauty brands are owned by the same parent companies. Fair & Lovely, Dove, and Vaseline are all owned by Unilever.
These ingredients aren’t as potent as the ones you’d find in prescription bleachers, but they can make your skin fairer with extended use.
Part of the trouble with discussing brightening, whitening, or lightening products is that because those terms aren’t clearly defined, the marketing language isn’t regulated. Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist in Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology in New York, considers whether the product bleaches or lifts stains from the skin in the same way you might evaluate how stains are removed from clothes when trying to make sense of these definitions.
Whitening products aren’t a new trend — plenty of communities have history with skin bleaching or home remedies intended to lighten the skin.
Fair & Lovely, a lightening cream primarily sold in India, has become a cultural touchpoint for many brown women.