Black Lives Matter activism has jolted the skin lightener industry. In June, manufacturers of skin lighteners joined other corporations in voicing support for the racial justice movement.
Critics quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of voicing such support in the US while continuing to sell skin whitening products globally. Such products, they say, play off of and promote racism and colourism (which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones) in Asia and Africa.
Manufacturers’ responses have varied. Johnson & Johnson agreed to stop selling Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness. Bigger players agreed to lesser changes. L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, will remove references to “white”, “fair” and “light” from marketing its Garnier skin products.
This move acknowledges that such language promotes a narrow and anti-Black vision of beauty by presenting pale complexions as the ideal. Unilever, whose Ponds and Vaseline lines dominate sales in South Asia, will also alter the name of its top-selling brand: Fair & Lovely will soon become Glow & Lovely.
Are these meaningful changes? Will they put a dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, now estimated to reach US$24 billion by 2027?
Never before have activists and consumers in so many different countries simultaneously challenged major cosmetics manufacturers with such persistent criticism. Yet, my research on the layered history of skin lightening in the US, South Africa, and East Africa suggests that the companies’ actions are neither new nor sufficient. Ending the most dangerous dimensions of the trade – the promotion of racist beauty ideals and the use of products containing mercury and other toxic ingredients – will require ongoing consciousness-raising and effective government regulation.
Many names, many uses
Manufacturers have long used a variety of names and messages to sell skin lighteners. This variety stems partly from the competitive nature of capitalist marketing and partly from the diverse reasons why people buy these products.
In the early 1900s, skin lighteners were usually marketed as “freckle waxes” or “skin bleaches”. They ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics and often contained mercury. Consumers included white, black and brown women.
Some women used waxes and bleaches to fade blemishes and dark spots, including freckles. Others used them to achieve an overall lighter complexion. Racialised beauty ideals – rooted in the history of slavery, colonialism, and segregation – shaped these desires.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped waxes and bleaches for tanning lotions as seasonal tanning came to embody new forms of white privilege. With this shift, skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of colour. For black and brown consumers living in places like the US, South Africa or Kenya where racism and colourism flourished, even slight differences in skin colour could carry significant political and social consequences. (Recently, some white women have returned to skin lighteners, now marketed as “anti-aging creams” and “skin brighteners”.)
During the 1950s and 1960s, manufacturers softened their marketing language. Surveys in the US found that many African American consumers took offence at the term “bleaching” – with its connotations of “whitening” – and preferred the language of lightening and toning. Hence, “skin lighteners” and “skin toners” replaced “skin bleaches”. Brands like Bleach ‘N Glow became Ultra Glow.
Unilever’s plan to swap “glow” for “fair” might be new for some Asian markets but the language of glow and brightness has been around in the US and South Africa for some time.
Criticism forced manufacturers to adjust in other ways. In 1971 Kenya’s postcolonial government banned Ambi skincare ads for abusing “the dignity of Africans” by claiming that “new Africans” were “light skinned Africans who used Ambi”. Black Consciousness organisers in South Africa denounced the same ads. Ambi responded by adopting a new slogan – “the clear, natural look” – and creating ads with an earthy sensibility.
Lessons from an anti-apartheid victory
In 1991 South African activists achieved more than marketing concessions from manufacturers. What happened provides important lessons for today.
A coalition of progressive medical professionals and Black Consciousness organisers convinced the apartheid government, in its waning months, to ban all cosmetics containing depigmenting agents including harmful mercury and hydroquinone, by then the most common active ingredient. They convinced the government to become the first in the world to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach”, “lighten” or “whiten” skin. Like today’s concessions to Black Lives Matter, South Africa’s regulations were the result of broad-based antiracist activism, the anti-apartheid movement.
The South African efforts achieved mixed results. On the one hand, activists effectively raised awareness about the physical and psychological harm of skin lightening. This led to decreased sales during the 1980s. After the 1991 regulations were implemented, in-country manufacture shuttered and supply dried up.
But these gains did not persist. The supply of banned skin lighteners crept back as traders smuggled them in from elsewhere. Soon, domestic manufacture reemerged, this time in secret. On occasion, government officials have raided stashes of skin lighteners. Much more illegal inventory has slipped their notice. Some officials complain that they have insufficient resources to monitor all cosmetics products. Other observers blame government corruption and apathy.
Demand returned as well. During the 2000s, a new generation of users emerged, often unaware of earlier struggles against skin lighteners and the dangers they posed. In post-apartheid South Africa, as elsewhere, deeply embedded forms of racism and colourism mean that paler skin tones are often still associated with beauty and success.
Over the past decade, some African women have targeted that association. Kenyan artist Ng’endo Mukii offered a powerful critical reflection on skin lightening in her 2012 short film Yellow Fever. South Africa dermatologist Ncoza Dlova holds educational events and campaigns to teach about the dangers of skin lighteners and the beauty of natural skin colour.
Somali-American activist Amira Adawe and her organisation Beautywell does similar outreach. They pressured online retailer Amazon to stop selling products that contain mercury. Most recently, they lobbied the US Congress for $2 million in new funding for research and public education on the dangers of skin lighteners.
L’Oreal’s and Unilever’s rebranding campaigns are inadequate. Combating the harm of skin lightening in the twenty-first century requires raising consumer awareness and challenging racist beauty ideals. It also requires that governments enforce and strengthen cosmetic regulations.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to perhaps one of the biggest shifts ever in how any company or corporate entity approaches the question of cleaning and sanitizing.
In the past, this function was something almost ‘hidden in the back office’ which no one really paid any attention to. This can certainly not be the approach anymore, and one industrial cleaning products company believes cleaning regimes simply have to become intimately ingrained in your organization and be made more visible.
“Moving your cleaning routine to the ‘front office’ is only one strategy to help businesses meet the cleaning demands of the future. Cleaning in the past happened after hours and only when spaces were less busy or had less movement or traffic.
"By it being done in a more visible manner, a company can promote trust and assure everyone that environmental and workplace safety is taken seriously,” says Emma Corder, Managing Director of industrial cleaning products manufacturer Industroclean.
Businesses must understand the inter-connectedness between the functional and psychological perceptions that people have about hygiene and a sanitized environment, says Corder. If they can integrate this into day to day routine, they have an opportunity to gain the competitive edge.
“If this pandemic has taught us one thing it is that we can’t predict exactly which changes will remain permanent and which will pass. One thing I do believe is that all businesses that want to survive will have to make a significant change to the prominence of cleaning and hygiene as a business imperative and how it’s implemented within their corporation.”
She explains the key elements that all companies will need to implement if they are wanting to build trust and retain their clientele:
Cleaning becoming part of your brand:
Businesses will need to adopt a psychological approach as well as the normal functional cleaning. This is because human health and safety has made cleanliness business-critical in a way that it has not been before. Big companies are now being transparent about their cleaning and safety measures, including it in all their messaging to clients.
Stricter cleaning procedures:
Businesses need to understand that the new regulations that have been put in place are meant to supplement—not replace the old cleaning produces. Many of these regulatory pressures will come directly from consumers as they rate cleanliness as a factor in deciding where to shop.
This won’t stop just at consumers but is also relevant in the B2B sector where pressure will come from other business throughout the supply chain. For example, warehouse service will also need to ensure the safety and integrity of their client’s products.
These new stricter regulations may not look just at upgrading of cleaning products, but the changing of products used, so it will be key for additional training. This will ensure that new procedures and precautions are taken to keep all safe.
Greater focus on critical areas:
Door handles, light switches, and touch points on equipment are just some high-frequency touch areas that will need to be cleaned frequently. This will however bring with it challenges as all other cleaning tasks still need to be performed according to all new regulatory requirements.
Many companies will need to invest in new technology within the sector to help free up time. “We have seen first-hand how investing in the right products and equipment not only saves time but will enable you to achieve high-frequency cleaning of critical areas without sacrificing the tasks your team already does on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, ” explains Corder.
Documentation and disclosure of cleaning procedures and frequency:
After the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in the early 2000’s, they implemented regulations whereby public areas, such as shopping malls and public transport areas needed to post their cleaning protocols at the entrances of all venues. This communication needs to be done with care though as not to scare the public into feeling they are at risk but that they are safe and can be comfortable to enjoy their activity at hand.
Physical changes in buildings:
Markings on the floor in retail or business have become the norm, in helping to support social distancing and limit critical contact point risks. Plexiglass dividers installed between employees in open plan offices are some of the changes implemented for the safety of all.
Many office buildings are taking it further with a focus on room design, redesigning public spaces to include fewer irregular shapes and surfaces.
Contactless technology is also being used with digital technologies, offering assistance to restaurants and bars were some have implemented contactless ordering and pickup using QR codes. When creating these changes there needs to be a balance between communicating and interacting with customers safely and not disengaging with them.
“No-one in the cleaning industry has a crystal ball which can predict how things will change but for the time being what is clear is that the current public health crisis has significantly changed both the role of cleaning and how it’s done, and that all businesses will be held to higher cleaning standards than they were in the past,” says Corder.
Health crises are not new in Africa. The continent has grappled with infectious diseases on all levels, from local (such as malaria) to regional (Ebola) to global (COVID-19). The region has often carried a disproportionately high burden of global infectious outbreaks.
How cities are planned is critical for managing infectious diseases. Historically, many urban planning innovations emerged in response to health crises. The global cholera epidemic in the 1800s led to improved urban sanitation systems. Respiratory infections in overcrowded slums in Europe inspired modern housing regulations during the industrial era.
Urban planning in Africa during colonisation followed a similar pattern. In Anglophone Africa, cholera and bubonic plague outbreaks in Nairobi (Kenya) and Lagos (Nigeria) led to new urban planning strategies. These included slum clearance and urban infrastructure upgrades. Urban planning in French colonial Africa similarly focused on health and hygiene issues, but also safety and security.
Unfortunately regional experiences with cholera, malaria and even Ebola in African cities provide little evidence that they have triggered a new urban planning ethic that prioritises infectious outbreaks.
References are often made to historical successes of urban planning in Africa. But colonial use of planning for cultural and structural isolation, as well as for socio-economic and spatial segregation, limited its capacity to respond to health emergencies. With the widespread nature of COVID-19, is it reasonable to argue that it could possibly be the pandemic that inspires a new way of “doing” urban planning in Africa?
Our recent research paper discusses three areas that can transform urban planning in the continent to prepare for future infectious outbreaks, using lessons from COVID-19.
Integrating the informal
The first relates to the integration of the city’s informal sector into the formal planning process. This is reflected in two ways. The first is the non-inclusion of informal settlements (mostly slums) in urban planning practice. The second is the lack of planning focus on the informal economy that results in exclusion. Yet this is a sector that constitutes more than 80% of Africa’s urban economy.
In a time of COVID-19, slums and informality are critical due to the sector’s vulnerability to transmission. It is challenging to deploy testing and contact tracing , as well as adhering to social distancing rules. Many slum residents in African cities lack access to basic essential services such as water, sanitation, housing and healthcare.
And, given that the informal sector is characterised by unregulated economic activities including uncontrolled hawking and unplanned open markets, overcrowding is impeding social and physical distancing rules in African cities.
Change is needed. Perhaps COVID-19 will be the wake-up call to spur the consolidation of existing and formal structures to becoming more responsive to managing health crises in slums and the informal sector.
Geographic and economic imbalances
Second, there are geographical and economic imbalances in urban planning in Africa. Investment patterns and development mostly focus on the major cities with limited focus on its adjoining districts and regions. Yet what happens in cities does not stay in cities.
Infectious diseases often have cascading effects on adjoining districts and regions with functional relationships to major cities. COVID-19 has affected both cities and their adjoining regions. However, adjoining districts continue to receive limited investment in critical infrastructures such as health, housing and other essential social services.
Given the disruptions to the supply chain between major cities and the adjoining districts due to the pandemic, it’s about time that planning practitioners and educators learn to prioritise urban planning to reflect these imbalances. A poorly managed relationship between cities and adjoining regions can create inequality that may lead to unhealthy city-regional inter-dependencies, environmental damage and unmanaged waves of health crises. These can have ripple effects across the urban-rural spectrum.
Planning in Africa should ensure city-regions are more resilient by addressing imbalances to produce a more integrated city-regional planning around health, economies, transport networks and food production.
Third, public health matters should be considered in urban planning. Health outcomes traditionally do not drive urban planning practice in Africa. In our study, urban green spaces are used as an example because the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted their importance in managing emergencies. Literature evidence suggests that African cities are rapidly losing their green spaces. This is due to, among other things, poor urban planning.
A new approach should bring open spaces into the heart of how African cities are planned, and management systems for local green space must improve. Integrating larger open spaces within the urban fabric allows cities to implement emergency services and evacuation protocols during health crises.
What frequently seems to be effective in advancing responses to health crises is an urban planning approach that integrates a range of infrastructure. This includes grey (such as treatment facilities and sewers), green (trees, lawns and parks) and blue (wetlands, rivers and flood plains) systems.
Although COVID-19 has profoundly transformed urban life globally, this article provides cautious optimism of its potential in managing future health crises in Africa. Going forward, urban planning in Africa needs to reflect the aspirations of urban residents and address multiple spatial inequalities, including access to better spaces in times of a pandemic.
Patrick Brandful Cobbinah, Lecturer, University of Melbourne; Ellis Adjei Adams, Assistant professor, University of Notre Dame, and Michael Odei Erdiaw-Kwasie, Research fellow, University of Southern Queensland