The History of Skin Lightening is fascinating.  Skin lightening itself is a controversial topic that has raised many questions in recent years. This practice, which involves the use of products or treatments to lighten one’s skin tone, has been around for centuries and has been deeply ingrained in many cultures worldwide. It is not just a modern trend; it is part of a long history that spans across different continents.

Perhaps, the first recorded instance of skin lightening dates back to ancient Egypt, although historical recording of such activity has been poor.  However, it is clear that the practice of skin whitening, and skin lightening have predated modern history and initially utilized natural substances, like milk and olive oil.   Women predominantly used the process to convey personal wealth and social status.   Over time, the popularity of the practice began to spread worldwide and across cultures.   In India, the caste system played a significant role in perpetuating the idea that fairer skin was more desirable than darker skin tones.  In the US, American Slavery, which was also a manifestation of colonialism, a similar stratification developed in Black people, with fairer skinned Blacks, likely the product of rape, were awarded privilege that was unavailable to darker skinned Blacks.   The association of status with proximity to white skin is perpetuated even until this day as “colorism”.

We do know that the spread of skin lightening across borders and territories is in great part due to the popularization of the practice by Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth, cementing the association of the practice with wealth and social stature.  A consequence of this association is defined by “Nigrescence Theory.” This theory and term was coined by Professor William H. Cross in his groundbreaking book Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity, which was published in 1991. Essentially the theory is characterized by an individual coming in contact with a white person and being induced to accept and internalize misinformation about the connection of connection of complexion to class.  And in turn, that individual once taught to believe, turns his or her backs on their identity, ethnicity and culture, and seeks validation of their worthiness from the person who misinformed them.

History of Skin Lightening. Shades of Black Diversity in African-American Identity
History of Skin Lightening. Shades of Black Diversity in African-American Identity

In the 21st century, white or porcelain skin no longer signifies wealth and status among ethnicities with fair skin.   A Cultural shift toward tanned, darkened skin has emerged as the predominant esthetic standard, in stark contrast to ancient times.   Darkened skin traditionally signified labor outdoors, rather than a life free of having to perform work.   Now, tanned skin signifies luxurious lifestyle and a life of leisure.   Although, there are health conditions, including psoriasis, which tend to be made less obvious by sun exposure.

Clearly, the motivation for skin lightening is not always related to self-esteem, assimilation, or conformity.  There are many factors that determine pigmentation and complexion.  They include genetics, environment, health, and lifestyle.   Motivations to change the complexion or parts of it that conflict with the uniformity of the skin are major reasons for skin-lightening.   It is very human to want to appear normal.  And having uniform skin is part of that pressure.  Not addressing a hyperpigmentation problem of the face can be psychologically damaging.   So, for people with hyperpigmentation, it is not just an esthetic choice to fix it, but an adaptive choice essential for well-being.

In more recent times, advances in technology have led to an explosion in the availability of skin lightening products.    Unfortunately, the desire for a bright complexion has led to the use of substances, chemicals and compounds that can not only be damaging to the skin, but unsafe in a general health sense.

The melanin pigment is responsible for giving color to our hair, skin, and eyes. It plays a crucial role in protecting the skin from UV radiation damage. Skin lightening works by inhibiting the production of melanin or by removing existing melanin from the skin’s surface. However, these methods can cause serious health risks such as cancer and permanent damage to the skin.

Skin lightening products are widely available on the market today, but the safety and effectiveness of some of them remain questionable.

Ancient Egypt:  The Impact of Cleopatra and the History of Skin Lightening

Ancient Egypt is a land of mysteries, where legends and history intertwine. Among the many rulers who have left their mark on this ancient civilization, Cleopatra stands out as one of the most fascinating. Known for her beauty, intelligence, and political savvy, Cleopatra’s legacy has endured through the ages.

History of Skin Lightening. Egypt. Cleopatra
History of Skin Lightening. Egypt. Cleopatra

Cleopatra was born in 69 BC to King Ptolemy XII Auletes and ruled alongside her younger brother before eventually taking sole control of Egypt. She was a skilled politician who knew how to navigate the complex power dynamics of ancient Egypt. She even formed an alliance with Julius Caesar, which helped secure her position as ruler. However, after Caesar’s assassination, she aligned herself with Mark Antony in a doomed attempt to protect Egypt from Roman rule.

Recent discoveries have revealed that Cleopatra was also a pioneer in the use of skin lightening agents.

Cleopatra’s legacy when it comes to beauty standards has been a topic of discussion among historians and scholars alike. She was famously depicted with a pale complexion, which was considered attractive at the time. It is believed that she used various natural ingredients such as milk and honey to achieve this look.  Legend has it that Cleopatra used the soured milk of seven hundred donkeys to bathe in, believing that milk contained the power to soften, lighten and beautify skin.

Today, we know that sour milk contains lactic acid, a naturally occurring AHA (alpha hydroxylic acid), which peels skin and exposes brighter and lighter skin.

However, recent archaeological findings suggest that she also used lead-based cosmetics on her face, which could have potentially harmful effects on her health.

Other ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Romans, used corrosive agents, such as limestone, to achieve the same results.

Asia: The History of Skin Lightening in Asian Countries

Asia is a continent that is home to diverse cultures, beliefs, and traditional practices. One of the most controversial topics in Asia is skin lightening. This practice has been prevalent for centuries and continues to be popular among many Asian communities.  The coveting of fair skin dates to at least Gojoseon era.  It was the first kingdom on the Korean Peninsula.  Back then, women powdered their face to achieve the signature “milk white” or “Jade” appearance using rice flour.  White skin signified nobility in Ancient East Asian culture.  To be light complected in an environment where the sun was harsh and unavoidable suggested wealth and class because those individuals were able to remain indoors while servants were resigned to manual labor outdoors.

Historians assert that skin whitening in many South and Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines grew in popularity through these nations’ histories of European colonization.

In China, where the skin care market is worth more than 35 billion yuan ($5.5 billion US Dollars), skin- lightening and skin-whitening products comprise about 70% percent of the market. In other parts of Asia, it is estimated that 40% of women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan use a skin whitening lotion or cream.

In India, preferences for lighter skin originated from centuries of outside rule by White people of different nationalities.  Likewise, in the Philippines and many Southeast Asian countries, lighter skin was also associated with higher social status.  Throughout medieval and modern history, the Indian subcontinent has been the uninvited host to various European settlers and traders.  This includes the period from the 15th to 17th centuries, and involves the Portuguese, Dutch and French. The subcontinent was invaded and partly ruled by the Mughals in the 16th century and colonized by the British from the 17th century onwards until independence in 1947. All these foreign “visitors” were white fairly complected people who imposed their brands of supremacy that came to be internalized in Indian society and culture.    Today, there is still contempt for brown skin by both the ruling class and lower castes, and reinforced daily by beauty magazine covers that feature almost exclusively Caucasian, often foreign, models.  And Bollywood, the prosperous Indian Movie Industry, stars including Shahrukh Khan and John Abraham, regularly endorse and promote skin bleaches.

History of Skin Lightening. India. Shah Rukh Khan Skin lightening Products
History of Skin Lightening. India. Shah Rukh Khan Skin lightening Products


The desire of a cultural mixture of brown people who aspire a westernized concept of beauty, and post-colonial activism has not changed much, despite “Dark Is Beautiful” campaigns by India’s “Women of Worth”.

Dark is Beautiful Campaign. History of Skin Lightening India
Dark is Beautiful Campaign. History of Skin Lightening India

According to a study from 2013 to 2016, 70% of the 300 women and men we interviewed reported wanting a date or partner with someone who had light skin.  Similarly, a 2014 study found nearly 90% of Indian girls cite skin lightening as a “high need”.   The “high need” has bolstered a blustering online market, where products, despite potential risks they have, are easily accessible at a variety of acceptable price points.

Since the 1970s, Asia has been the fastest growing sector in the global skin-lightening market. Asia is a lucrative market with high-growth potential because of a rising middle-class with increasing disposable income and centuries-deep cultural impressions of beauty.

India’s domestic cosmetics industry is set to grow to $3.6 billion US dollars by 2014, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. The skin-lightening cream market by itself was worth $432 million (US Dollars) in 2010 and is growing almost 20% a year.

As the importance of male beauty has developed, the cosmetics industry in India and other Asian countries has also started to target men, selling to men the same idea they’ve sold to women successfully that lighter skin would make them more attractive. While skin-lightening products for women have been available for decades, products for men have only appeared recently but the trend is rapidly growing.   At any department store in Asia offering skin care products, a section containing skin lightening products targeted specifically will be found.

History of Skin Lightening India Bollywood
History of Skin Lightening India Bollywood

However, this practice has received criticism from many quarters due to its harmful effects on individuals’ health as well as its perpetuation of colorism within societies.


Europe: The History of Skin Lightening in Europe and the Spread of Skin Whitening

Europe is experiencing a surge in popularity in the modern era, with an increasing number of people drawn to its rich history, diverse cultures, and stunning landscapes. However, one particular trend that has gained significant attention recently is the use of skin lightening products.

Historians have documented the practice of Skin lightening from 8th Century BC to 5th Century Ancient Greece and Rome.   Formulations for skin whitening were known to contain Lead Carbonate and Mercury compounds to produce the whitening effect.  Consequences to health and skin including skin erosion were also well-known.

Eventually, the practice of skin lightening and whitening spread to England during the Elizabethan period from 1558 – 1603.  Queen Elizabeth I and other aristocratic women and men of the Tudor period of England were known to use such formulations to lighten skin as Venetian Ceruse.

History of Skin LIghtening England Europe. Queen Elizabeth I
History of Skin Lightening England Europe. Queen Elizabeth I

This formulation, also called “Spirits of Saturn” was a mixture of Lead Carbonate/Lead Hydroxide mined from Venice and Vinegar.  The socialite, Maria Coventry Countess of Coventry, is known to have died of Lead poisoning at age 27 after prolonged use of the whitening agent.   Elizabeth I may also have succumbed to chronic Lead poisoning for the same reason. Manifestation of lead poisoning secondary to skin whiteners included hair loss.

History of Skin Lightening, England, Maria, Countess of Coventry.
History of Skin Lightening, England, Maria, Countess of Coventry.

Interesting other agents used to brighten, lighten, and whiten skin include urine and ingestion of waters of Arsenic.

For women, the beauty standard during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was pale white skin, rosy cheeks, and ruby red lips.  It was a standard that could be approached by wealthy women and royalty, and less available to common people.  Elizabeth’s artistic renderings of the time always depicted her this way. Some associated this look achieved with whiteners as a blemish of reputation, such as suggesting of prostitution.  And also, the lead-based agent when worn was obvious, but this is not unlike the reputation associated with women who were any type of cosmetic product during any Western culture or time-period.   To make things work, Venetian ceruse was not only toxic with prolonged, but associated with Acne Vulgaris, which was treated as a sign of witchcraft.

In Europe, where people have traditionally preferred tanned skin for aesthetic reasons due to its association with health and vitality, there appears to be a growing interest in lighter complexions. This change may be driven by factors such as globalization and increased exposure to other cultures’ beauty ideals.

North America:  The History of Skin Lightening in America

As America was settled, European standards and traditions regarding beauty and skin-lightening followed.   Cosmetic formulations were essentially the same for white women as the ones used in Europe, but gradually became intermixed with herbal traditions of the Indigenous and West African peoples over time.  As the popularity of Porcelain skin trend continued in the 1800s, there was less of a reliance of formulations containing Lead, Arsenic and Mercury.  This meant that toxicity from these metals was less of a problem, although in some cases, they may have been much more effective in lightening and whitening skin.

White Men also employed skin-lightening.  Largely, the process was more common to men who were effeminate or gay.

With Emancipation of enslaved Black people in America, Black women began to indulge in the skin-lightening trend, as freedmen understood the privilege associated with lighter skin and sometimes the additional benefit of passing from being able to pass as white, for those lighter-skinned individuals who were the product of interracial rape.

During the Jim Crow Era, the opportunity to take advantage of the social disparity was appreciated by businesspeople.   Significant effort was made to market skin-lighteners to Black people in an effort to help them improve their social status.  In some Magazine advertisements geared toward the Black population, “fair skin” was celebrated and connected to better quality of life, better ability to attract romantic partners and to succeed in life.   An example is this Dr. Fred Palmer’s Skin Whitener Ad:

The History of Skin Lightening, America, Post-Emancipation of enslaved Black people.
The History of Skin Lightening, America, Post-Emancipation of enslaved Black people.

By the 1960s, as the Civil Rights and Black Empowerment movements, the trend shifted away from fair complexions and the rejection of the beauty standards in skin and hair imposed by colonialism and slavery, and the appreciation of natural complexions of skin and natural textures of hair.   The “Black is Beautiful” movement essentially brought bleaching agents to near extinction, although products did continue to be very useful for uneven complexion and hyperpigmentation disorders.  This exquisite photo in the New York Times was seminal in the launch of the “Black is Beautiful” movement:

History of Skin Lightening. America. Black is Beautful campaign.
History of Skin Lightening. America. Black is Beautiful campaign.

By 1980, the trend for complexion among white people was in the direction of tanned skin, and so bleaching agents were not in vogue.  But as it became obvious, that tanning was harmful to skin, caused premature aging, and was implicated in the rise in deadly skin cancer (melanoma), the trend shifted back to pale skin or naturally pigmented skin.

Even still, Skin lightening advertisements in North America often use language that suggests that lighter skin tones are more desirable and attractive. These advertisements still promote the idea that fairer skin equates to success and social superiority.  And despite academic discussions of the harmful nature of colorism within the Black diaspora, some still choose skin lightening as an esthetic choice that is right for them.

Along with the interest in body and skin modification, science has stepped up to the plate to provide stronger and safer options for people wanting to change their complexion.  This includes not only the identification of thousands of inhibitors of enzymes which participate in the formation of melanin in the skin, but hormones which cause the skin to tan or darken.   There is also a barrage of topical tanning agents which tint or dye the skin for durations of time, for people not wanting to risk the complications of photodamage to skin caused by deliberate sun exposure or from tanning beds.

Science has also helped improve the cosmetic ramifications of Vitiligo, the auto-immunity conditions which causes the development of irregular areas of skin which are depigmented.   As discussed in previous blogs, there are therapies that are cytotoxic to the melanocyte (melanin-producing cells) located in patches where pigment remains, that can be used to depigment the dark areas, creating a uniform skin appearance over time.  Similarly, laser therapy and immune-modulators can now be used to restore the melanocyte population in depigmented areas on the skin of people with Vitiligo.   These options not only provide an esthetic improvement, but they provide a psychological improvement in these patients who often are teased, ostracized and bullied for their skin condition.

Research has shown that this trend is not unique to North America, but rather a global phenomenon. The promotion of lighter skin tones through media representation has long existed in many cultures, including Asian and African countries. However, it remains unclear whether the popularity of these products is driven solely by media representation or if other factors such as societal pressures and personal preferences play a role.

Latin America:  The History of Skin Lightening in Latin America and Rise of Blanqueamiento

To understand the motivation for skin lightening, attention must be paid to the Blanqueamiento ideology.  Blanqueamiento is defined by a socio-economic and political movement designed to “whiten” Latin populations, by luring Europeans into the countries and by intermarrying and, thus, whitening the phenotype of the population or through the encouragement of married lighter complected individuals to lead to the eventual whitening of the population.  The influence of colonialism in these regions led to the idea that survival in the global arena and modernization would be tied to the ability of these populations to look more European and less indigenous and less Black.  The interesting phenomenon is that Blanqueamiento was not just an idea, but a policy implementation, which allowed European immigration in a deliberate attempt to disintegrate their own ethnic origins. In addition to phenotypic assimilation, the populations.

History of Skin LIghtening. Latin America. Blanqueamiento
History of Skin LIghtening. Latin America. Blanqueamiento

And it worked.  The largest proportion (55.6%) of people “of Color” was recorded in 1820 and was subsequently reduced. In 1864, 52.4% of the population was “white”.   Over time, the population of these areas including Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico saw and decline in the population of “non-white” percentage. And as expected, the “white” percentage population increased from 61.8% in 1899 to 80.5% in 2000. At the same time, the proportion of people classified as “non-white” fell from 38.2% to 19%.

But in contrast to the trend of rejection of ethnic whitening, the use of skin-lighteners still grew as a reaction to culturally ingrained internalized racial self-hatred and self-loathing inspired by colonialism.

The following 20 years have seen a movement towards multiculturalism and identity pride.   Blanqueamiento as an ideology has all but faded.

Africa: The History of Skin Lightening resulting from Colonialism

Africa has a long history of colonialism, which has had far-reaching effects on the continent’s cultural, political, and economic development. One of the more harmful legacies of colonialism is the widespread adoption of skin lightening products by Africans seeking to conform to Western beauty standards. While these products have been used for centuries in various African cultures for cosmetic purposes and to signify wealth and status, their popularity has increased dramatically since the arrival of European colonizers.

According to historians, Skin lighteners first appeared in sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century.  The South Africa “Colored Labor Preference Act” of 1955 saw an increase in the use of skin-lightening agents, as Black Africans struggled to find better opportunities in local economies. Domestic workers and cooks were able to find work more easily if they had lighter skin.  Light skin facilitated social mobility.

Paradoxically, skin lightening creams use continued to increase in South Africa achieved democracy in 1994.  The reason for this phenomenon was the creation of new spaces for the expression of identity following the end of apartheid, which was the system of governance wherein light-skinned or white people suppressed the dark-skinned population.  This occurrence was not simply black people aspiring to be white, but rather, free from the oppressors that rooted people to racial classification systems.

In spite of similar trends in other sub-Saharan African countries, the South African government, starting in the 1970s, established regulations for skin whitening products, banning products that contained mercury or elevated levels of hydroquinone, which were either known to be harmful or thought to carry significant risks.  Additionally, terms such as brightradiancelight and clear on the packaging appears because South African legislation prohibits the advertising of skin lightening products to bleachlighten or whiten.  Currently, it is estimated that up to 35% of Black South African women use skin-lightening products.  And an estimate less than 5% of models on Women’s have dark skin. In three other African countries, the statistics demonstrate that 25% of women in Bamako, Mali a further 52% in Dakar, Senegal, and 77% in Lagos, Nigeria use skin lighteners.

History of Skin Lightening. Africa. Yvonne Nelson Actress Nigeria
History of Skin Lightening. Africa. Yvonne Nelson Actress Nigeria

Skin lightening products contain chemicals that inhibit melanin production in the skin, resulting in a lighter complexion. These chemicals can be harmful if used improperly or excessively, as they can lead to skin damage, hyperpigmentation, and even cancer. Despite these risks, many Africans continue to use skin lightening products due to societal pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.  Starting in the 1970s, the South African government established regulations for skin whitening products, banning products containing mercury or hydroquinone at high percentages.   Despite regulations, skin lightening and skin bleaching use is booming in South Africa and many other Sub-Saharan Africa countries thanks to the black market. And in Africa, it may always be that way.


Skin lightening is a practice that has gained popularity in recent years. The desire for lighter skin tones can stem from cultural or societal pressures, but it can lead to the use of harmful chemicals and unsafe procedures. The complexity of skin lightening arises from the various factors involved in determining skin pigmentation, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle.  The psycho-social motivation in places where skin lightening persists has a similar origin and backstory:  A dark-skinned population made to feel inferior by a supremist population with lighter skin.  The conflict persists throughout the history and evolution of the oppressed population, such that even when the population rids itself of white supremacy control, the internalized inferiority persists.

The concept of skin lightening is harmless for the most part and in a physical and psychological sense.  It becomes harmful, when people have desired lighter skin and put their health at risk using substances and ingredients shown by scientific studies and numerous anecdotes.   These substances include Mercury and Mercury compounds, strong Corticosteroids or unacceptably high concentrations Hydroquinone.  People who lighten and ignoring the probability of severe health consequences including renal (kidney) damage, ochronosis and melanoma due to the skin’s failure to repel UV-radiation.

History of Skin Lightening. Ochronosis.
History of Skin Lightening. Ochronosis.

That is not to say that internalized inferior is the only reason that people choose to lighten their skin.  As previously suggested, uneven complexions and hyperpigmentation remain strong reasons that people lighten their skin.   And skin conditions like vitiligo are medical situations where skin bleaching is clearly warranted.

Finally, others across cultures are choosing skin lightening simply as an esthetic choice.  With all the options that scientists have identified that work by blocking the mechanism of melanin production, people can opt to lighten their skin one shade on the Fitzpatrick scale to bleaching their skin to achieve porcelain skin.   Doing so is not an act of self-loathing, race hatred or ancestral indoctrination, no more than white people and fair-skinned people choose to darken their skin.   People simply choose what color or tone makes them look more interesting, attractive, or better.   And people not only do this with skin tone; They often choose modifications of their brows, noses, cheeks, lips, breasts, and other body parts with the help of cosmetic surgeons, Botox and filler injectors, and estheticians.

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