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"Nobody talks about these things" Skin lighteners find a niche

Consumers in Finland can choose from an array of products but may be unaware of potential risks.

Ihmiset kävelevät kaupungin vilinässä ja tungoksessa.
Little is known about the skin lightener market in Finland. One NGO has suggested that use of the products is a taboo subject. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Few people -- apart from sellers and buyers -- are even aware of the use of of skin lightening cosmetics in Finland.

However some skin lighteners have been classified as dangerous by the EU’s Safety Gate rapid alert system for non-food products because they contained harmful substances such as mercury and hydroquinone. Products flagged in that system had brand names such as Fair & White and Fair & Lovely, and could also be seen on shelves in the Helsinki region.

This week All Points North talked to Denise Wall about her research on skin lightening in Finland.

You can listen to the full podcast via the embedded player here, Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed. Be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts and sign up for the APN newsletter.

Audio: Yle News

Skin lightening is big business globally -- the World Health Organization has estimated that the industry could be worth around 26 billion euros by 2024. However, there are no official statistics about the size of the skin lightener market here in Finland.

The products are often used by people who have darker complexions to remove or fade dark spots from acne scars, age spots or areas of dark discoloration known as hyperpigmentation, caused by a concentration of melanin.

But for others, these cosmetics hold the alluring promise of an overall lighter skin tone, considered to be a symbol of beauty and status in some societies.

"It [use of skin lighteners] ties in with colourism and the push of euro-centric beauty standards," Akunna Onwen, a member of the Afro-Finnish Good Hair Day collective, told Yle News. Colourism refers to a form of discrimination based on skin colour, in which darker-skinned people are subjected to more prejudice than lighter-skinned people of the same race.

Colourism and the use of skin lightening products are not subjects that occupy space in Finnish media, given that they are minority issues. At the end of 2019, there were just over 423,000 foreign-background people in Finland in a total population of around 5.5 million. That represents just over 7.5 percent of the population.

Passport to greater status

Ghanaian-born entrepreneur Edem Agbekey-Taylor told Yle News that she once used a skin lightening cream, only to give it up after developing an allergic reaction.

"I started using it in 1995 and stopped in 1996. I forgot that I was an engineer working with petrochemicals, the sun, the heat and I had a reaction to the chemicals," she said.

She added that lighter skin is widely seen as a sign of status in Ghana and that many high-profile people use the products to achieve a lighter complexion.

"Politicians and celebrities in Ghana use it. People think a lighter skin will give you more status. You can be educated but illiterate about these things. Billboards show the cream and a lighter skin so people think that’s the result they will get," she noted.

Agbekey-Taylor pointed out that people are generally poorly-informed about the possible side effects of these cosmetics and may even continue to use them despite adverse reactions. Now resident in Finland, she has turned her hand to building up a sustainable cosmetics line that uses natural ingredients from Ghana and Finland.

Lighter skin comes with risks

Batulo Essak, a midwife, public health nurse and founder of the health-focused NGO African Care, told Yle News that the use of skin lighteners is an issue that flies under the radar in Finland.

"In Finland nobody talks about these things but they are beginning to talk in Africa, America and Asia," Essak noted.

She told Yle News that ethnic stores in Finland sell the products simply because there is a demand for them. On the other hand, people are reluctant to admit that they use skin lighteners, she said.

"They don’t tell you, but you can see the difference if their hands and feet are dark and their faces are lighter. You might also smell it, because these products burn the skin."

"Nowadays men also use them. You see people buying them at the ethnic stores. Women think men like lighter skin and it will improve their chances of getting married. I won’t use it because I’m proud of my colour," she added.

African Care’s Essak said that she also feels strongly about the use of skin lightening cosmetics because of her nursing background.

"I am a nurse and I counsel people about health. I don’t support their use because it’s not healthy. It burns the skin and can damage the kidneys," Essak declared.

Yle News spoke with the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency, Tukes, which pointed out that while many products can be used safely, others may contain substances such as mercury and hydroquinone, which are harmful to humans, and which are prohibited in the EU’s Cosmetic Product Regulation (CPR).

"Hydroquinone is a skin sensitiser and may cause an allergic skin reaction. According to the CPR, skin lightening cosmetic products shall not contain substances such as mercury and hydroquinone," Tukes senior officer Terhi Tauriala-Rajala said.

WHO lists public health dangers

The World Health Organization has also noted that although products containing mercury have been banned in many countries, they may still be available in stores or online. It warns in a paper on the subject that many products may not even indicate that mercury is an ingredient.

The WHO lists some of the health complications from the use of mercury as "kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy", a form of nerve damage.

The international agency said that the use of skin lighteners may also pose a public health risk. That’s because any mercury in them will eventually find its way into wastewater, later making its way into the environment. In such cases it can enter the food chain as highly toxic methylmercury in fish, potentially posing a danger to the fetuses of pregnant women who consume contaminated fish.

A reckoning over beauty concepts

The practice of skin lightening or skin bleaching, as well as the cultural and social attitudes driving it, have increasingly come under global scrutiny in the wake of a renewed debate on racism in the light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many industries and sectors have been facing their own reckoning on the subject, with some critics calling for a detox in white-dominated Hollywood as well as in the Indian film industry, commonly known as Bollywood, which is infamous for its preference for light-skinned leads.

An increasingly strident conversation about colourism and the role of skin lightening preparations has also prompted large global brands such as Unilever and Johnson&Johnson to drop terms such as "whitening" and "fair" from product names in favour of alternatives such as "brightening", "smoothing", "perfecting" or even "clarifying".

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