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From Colonial Legacy to Global Initiative: Sri Lanka, Gabon, and Jamaica Unite in a US$14 Million Battle Against “Mercury spell” in Skin-Lightening Cosmetics

Twitter: @sahanasometimes

Three nations have collaborated to combat the use of mercury in skin-lightening products, responding to a growing movement against the promotion of fairer skin and its detrimental effects on women’s mental well-being.

The governments of Sri Lanka,Gabon and Jamaica,have initiated a $14-million initiative aimed at eradicating the use of mercury in skin-lightening cosmetics.

Advertisement for Rexona soap, In India, according to its Wikipedia page it was launched in 1947 as a rival to Hamam, thenTata product. (picture courtesy www. onlineindianads.com)

Skin lightening has been a long-standing practice worldwide, with both men and women utilizing these products to achieve lighter skin, fade imperfections, and address various skin conditions. However, many consumers are unaware that these cosmetics often contain harmful substances, including toxic mercury, which can have severe health consequences.

Mercury poisoning has become a widespread and alarming issue associated with the use of skin-lightening and anti-aging creams, particularly those sold online through platforms such as eBay, Alibaba, and Amazon. A comprehensive analysis conducted in 2022 by the Zero Mercury Working Group highlighted the severity of this problem.

Despite the Minamata Convention on Mercury establishing a limit of 1 milligram per kilogram (1 ppm) for mercury in such products, a study conducted in 2018 found that around 10 percent of skin-lightening creams exceeded this threshold, with some containing up to 100 times the authorized amount.

Over a period of 13 months, the working group examined a total of 271 products purchased in 15 different countries. Their findings revealed that more than half of these products were contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury, surpassing the legal limit of 1 ppm established in the United States.

Advertisement for pears soap in 1940. Source: The illustrated weekly of India (Bombay), p.51 British library, London.

Michael Bender, the international coordinator of the Mercury Policy Project, expressed his distress over this issue, stating to the Guardian, “It’s really concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell and flaunt and profit from illegal products that are doing significant damage to consumers.”

The use of mercury in skin lighteners is primarily due to its ability to inhibit melanin synthesis, resulting in skin lightening. Additionally, these products claim to eliminate wrinkles, spots, freckles, and blemishes.

Mercury in skin-lightening cosmetics, presents significant hazards to those who use them. Inhalation of mercury vapor can cause severe damage to the nervous, digestive, immune systems, as well as the lungs and kidneys. The World Health Organization emphasizes that exposure to mercury can even result in fatalities. Cosmetic products that contain mercury can give rise to numerous detrimental effects, including anxiety, depression, skin rashes, discoloration, scarring, and damage to the immune system.

Whitening soap for sale in a reputed supermarket in Thailand. Picture credit: sahana David Menon

Using mercury in skin-lightening products not only endangers the health of people who use them but also affects children through breast milk and pollutes food chains when these cosmetics are washed off into wastewater. Moreover, mercury can travel long distances and build up in the environment, remaining in the soil, water, and Earth for a long time. It has become a pressing issue to tackle the use of mercury in these products worldwide, especially considering that the demand for skin-lightening products is expected to reach a staggering US$12 billion by 2026 underscores the magnitude of this industry’s impact.

Addressing the Issue:

Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and financially supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Eliminating Mercury Skin Lightening Products project is being implemented by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI). Its primary objective is to mitigate the hazards of mercury exposure resulting from the usage of such products. This initiative intends to enhance public knowledge regarding the associated health risks, establish model regulations to curtail their distribution, and completely cease their production, trade, and circulation in both domestic and international markets. In recognition of the seriousness of this issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has taken decisive action to tackle the utilization of mercury in skin-lightening products. By receiving funding from the Global Environment Facility, UNEP will spearhead a three-year project that involves close collaboration with the World Health Organization and the Biodiversity Research Institute. The project’s core objectives include harmonizing policies within the cosmetic industry through the adoption of best practices, raising awareness about the dangers linked to mercury, and promoting the use of safer alternatives.

Advertisement for ponds cream in 1940’s . Picture :classic indian ads

Changing Behaviors and Shifting Cultural Norms:

UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division Director, Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, emphasizes the urgency of addressing the public health issue associated with mercury in skin-lightening products and calls for action against companies that continue to manufacture and sell toxic products. WHO also stresses the need for immediate action to eliminate mercury from these daily-use products.

Beyond regulatory efforts, the project also seeks to change damaging behaviors and cultural norms related to skin complexion. Through engagement with organizations, healthcare professionals, and influencers in the field, efforts will be made to promote acceptance and pride in natural skin tones. Emphasizing a new ideal equated with humanity rather than the fairness of one’s skin, the aim is to encourage a shift away from the harmful practice of skin lightening.

The Light vs. Dark Dichotomy in Asian Countries.

The persistent fascination with lighter skin in Asia always grabs people’s attention. Beauty pageants, advertisements, and social trends often highlight the belief that having fair skin is more desirable.

However, in recent years, there have been instances that challenge this idea. In the case of Nonthawan Thongleng, who was crowned Miss Thailand World in 2014. Her victory was seen as an opportunity to redefine beauty standards and inspire those with darker skin. Traditionally, darker-skinned women in Thailand have been marginalized in favor of a lighter-skinned ideal.

A similar debate emerged when Catriona Gray, who has mixed Scottish-Filipino heritage, was crowned Miss Universe in the Philippines. Some critics argued that she didn’t embody the “Filipino enough” standard, sparking discussions about skin color and cultural norms.

Throughout Asia, the association of dark skin with rural poverty and light skin with social status has deep historical roots, influencing societal preferences.

The pressure to maintain fair skin is further reinforced through various media platforms. Advertisements promoting skin-whitening creams and treatments are prevalent. This beauty standard also extends to men, with clinics offering procedures like skin whitening and even “penis whitening” in countries like Thailand. The market economy, consumerism, social media, and the selfie culture all contribute to this obsession with fair skin.

Historical and Societal Factors Behind the Obsession with Lighter Skin.

The obsession with lighter skin can be traced back to the era of colonialism. Historical societies in the Caribbean and the United States, shaped by slave ownership, propagated the notion of white racial purity. They treated lighter-skinned slaves more favorably, while the “one drop rule” further reinforced the idea that even a single drop of Black ancestry made someone inferior. This mindset led to the association of lighter skin with higher social status and respectability.

A research conducted by Dr. Mobeen Hussain reveals colorism became entrenched during the later colonial period. The imperial-backed capitalist economy in India played a role in racializing its population. Although the experiences of South Asian and Black communities differ, it is observed anti-Black attitudes do exist within certain South Asian groups.

Both Black and South Asian communities continue to face the enduring impact of their colonial histories and the persistence of racism. Colonial thinkers perpetuated the division between “strong pale Aryans” and “small dark-skinned primitive Dravidians.” The British colonial state further deepened these divisions by codifying different castes based on skin color.

These discriminatory beliefs were intertwined with European ideas of superiority and progress, which later were selectively adopted by other social groups.

The skin lightening industry had already taken hold long before Unilever’s Fair and Lovely cream debuted in 1971. European and American companies seized the opportunity to promote soaps, creams, and skin-lightening products to their colonized consumers. These products were marketed with the promise of superior hygiene, heightened femininity, and the association with whiteness.

The influence of these ideals extended beyond mere advertising and found its way into early 20th-century photography and cinema industries. As people from South Asia and the Caribbean migrated to post-war Britain, these deeply ingrained preferences and beauty standards continued to persist, further perpetuating the obsession with lighter skin tones.

This discrimination further intensified the racism faced by these communities within white British society. During the 1960s, both the Black power movements and anti-racist organizations in the US and Britain embraced the powerful idea of “Black is beautiful” to counteract such prejudice. Similarly, in 2017, the Indian NGO Women of Worth launched the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, drawing inspiration from these movements and their empowering messages.

Although many efforts have been made to prohibit skin lightening products and their harmful ingredients like mercury, their usage remains complex. Some individuals view skin lightening as a personal choice to enhance their beauty.

Despite initiatives to combat the negative effects of skin lightening, the emergence of new technologies like laser treatments, cosmetic surgeries, and the influence of social media filters continue to perpetuate the preference for lighter skin tones.

But for some individuals, skin lightening is seen as a response to racism and is regarded as a matter of survival. Many still perceive it as a way to access the social advantages necessary for improving prospects, ranging from better career opportunities to personal relationships.

Addressing the deeply ingrained issues of colorism and the fixation on light skin requires comprehensive efforts to challenge and dismantle the enduring legacy of colonialism that sustains these biases. It is essential to cultivate inclusive societies that genuinely value and celebrate the inherent beauty found in all skin tones, rejecting the harmful hierarchy associated with skin color.

Sahana David Menon
Sahana David Menon
Foreign Correspondent (Sri Lanka) - Sahana David Menon is a multimedia Journalist | Researcher | Story Teller based in South Asia. Sahana is a Foreign Correspondent for TheNews21. She began reporting in 2014 from the post-Srilankan civil war-ethic conflicts and has since worked with Marginalized communities, conflicts and Environmental issues in India, Srilanka, the Bali islands, and the Middle east. Sahana has won the best multimedia report award in 2016 in the Global Press awards


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