Along Central Harlem’s main commercial centers like 125th and 116th Streets, almost every beauty shop and general store sells an assortment of skin-lightening products – soaps such as Bio Claire, Skin Light cream, and Metasol Medicated gel. These products are imported from France, China, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and all make promises like this one on Daggett & Ramsdell’s Skin Brightening Mask: to “leave you with a brighter, more evenly toned complexion.” Before and after pictures on the Daggett and Ramsdell box show a black woman whose skin has turned several shades lighter, ostensibly thanks to the Skin Brightening Mask.
“All these people here use these creams!” says Fatoumata Fadiga, gesturing at the crowds outside the window of her store in Harlem’s Little Senegal along 116th Street. Fadiga, a naturally fair-skinned Guinean woman wearing an orange kaftan with gold trimmings, sells fabrics, spices, perfumes and a variety of skin-lightening products – all imported from Africa.
Skin lightening is a part of many cultures, particularly in Africa and Asia, and immigrants often bring the practice with them to New York City – along with demand for products imported from their homelands. Fadiga says the West African women in her neighborhood buy her skin lighteners in the eternal hope that altering their appearance will make them happier.
In addition to fairer skin, “They want small, pointy noses” she says, pressing her index fingers on her nose, “They want big boobs,” she says, groping her breasts. And, she adds, pulling at her lips, they want, “thin lips.”
As for lighter skin, Fadiga says she only recommends that West African women use lighteners if they already are pretty fair skinned and they have scars from bed bug bites. Otherwise, she warns,, “If you mix any cream your skin look light, but it destroys yours skin, so maintain your color!”
Skin lighteners can indeed produce dangerous side effects, caused by harsh chemicals in them, including hydroquinone, which is banned in some countries (but not in the U.S.). Mercury is another common ingredient, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), can lead to adverse side effects such as kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring.
Despite the danger, WHO reported that in four West African countries – Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo – anywhere from 25 to 77 percent of all women use skin-lightening products on a regular basis.
“In my country, I think 70 percent of the people use these creams,” says Bachir Diawara, a Senegalese man who works at a hair and beauty shop on 116th Street. “Even light people use the creams,” he says, though Diawara says he does not find bleached skin attractive “because it’s unnatural.”
In many African countries, not only are skin-lightening products widely used, but also national celebrities have started to promote the practice and particular products.
Kenyan model and socialite Vera Sidika implied in a recent TV interview with TheTrend that she was more successful since having her skin professionally lightened. “The reason why I did it is because my body is my business, and it is a money maker,” she said, and admitted to spending 50 million Kenyan shillings, the equivalent of $55 000, on getting the process done by a dermatologist in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Dencia, a Nigerian-Cameroonian singer and model, announced the launch of Whitenicious this year, a product line ranging from soap at $13, to beautifying toning milk with a $300 price tag for one bottle.
So much for the predictions after this year’s Academy Awards in February, that the era of “you have to be fair to be famous” was coming to an end. Those predictions were based on Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who accepted her Oscar in a dazzling white dress that emphasized her deep brown skin. “It’s the ultimate validation that someone of deep color, with African features, has been declared beautiful,” wrote Teri Agins from the Wall Street Journal.
While celebrities back home are making the use of skin lightening creams more mainstream, some in Harlem are reluctant to acknowledge they use them. In one salon on 125th Street, a hairdresser’s dark knuckles and uneven skin tone on her arms and face were clear signs she’s used skin lighteners. Yet, when asked about them, she – like many other West African women in the area – said, “I don’t know anything about it.”
At another Little Senegal location on 116th Street, Olimada, a vendor who sells skin lightening products, said “I have been using these creams for years.” Olimada, who didn’t want to give her last name, said that she’s had no problems with side effects. Asked why she uses the creams, she says, “Why not?”