HomeArticlesThe beauty politic: South Africa’s long and complicated history with skin lighteners

The beauty politic: South Africa’s long and complicated history with skin lighteners

Today, South Africa remains the only country in the world to prohibit all cosmetic claims to skin bleaching, lightening or whitening — and we have a blend of Black Consciousness and science to thank for it. But regulation hasn’t totally snuffed out demand for dangerous creams containing toxic chemicals.


At a 1969 Durban marketing conference, one presenter, Mr A. Tiley, expressed an abiding optimism in South Africa’s skin lightener trade. 

Tiley explained that another business consultant, a recent immigrant — likely from the United States — had offered a “misguided” prediction: political independence in Africa and the Black Power movement with its affirmation that “Black is Beautiful” signalled the trade’s long-term demise.

The country’s market was too strong and too distant from those political movements to feel their effect, Tiley insisted. Mockingly, Tiley asked whether Black Power activists could really change “purchasing pattern in the Republic of South Africa?” 

Tiley answered his own question by arguing that skin lighteners carried a “sex[ual]” rather than “political connotation”. 

Today, the sales of skin lighteners extend across Asia, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The market for these products is expected to total US$12.3-billion (R211-billion) by 2027, according to industry research published earlier this year. This demand is despite the toxicities of many creams and antiracist activists’ condemnation of them.

Like other potentially dangerous beauty practices, skin lightening pits the promise of bodily enhancement against the threat of physical harm. 

In the 1960s, Tiley was right that desires to “look attractive and sexy” spurred skin lightener sales. What he missed was how those desires had long been shaped by cultural and political ties that crisscrossed the Atlantic, and by racial and gender inequalities. 

And over the course of the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, as resistance to apartheid grew, Tiley’s questions would appear more naive than the newcomer’s prediction. 

In the words of Khanyi Mbau: ‘Beauty is all a choice we have … [depending on] the size of the wallet’

About the same time that Tiley attended the Durban conference, students at the nonwhite medical school across town founded the South African Student Organisation (Saso). Saso leader Steve Biko and others were influenced by Black Power activists as well as, for instance, African nationalism, Marxism and Frantz Fanon. 

Black Consciousness activists reworked transnational influences to craft a political ideology that addressed life under apartheid by imagining new ways of being under a barrage of images and messages that equated power and beauty with lightness and whiteness. 

Activists embraced the philosophy “Black is Beautiful,” which had begun to circulate in popular media and was often a direct retort to the pervasive presence of skin lighteners. 

Meanwhile, Michael G Whisson and William Weil, in a 1971 book, described how many people, regardless of skin colour, still believed that “light skins were better than dark skins”. This belief, they explained, had “given rise to a large cosmetics industry aimed at making skins lighter, with advertisements emphasising that light-brown girls are considered more beautiful and light-brown men more competent and likely to succeed in life”. 

If Black Power ideas had yet to alter South Africa’s thinking, Saso activists set about to change that.

‘You can’t organise politically a people who psychologically don’t think they are of any value’

Saso initially assumed the state’s racial categories, defining itself as a nonwhite organisation. But in 1970, Saso amended its constitution to replace “non-white” with “Black.” “Non-white,” they argued, denied “self-respect to the majority of South Africa’s people.” By using “Black” to reference all disenfranchised by apartheid, Saso activists expanded the concept of Blackness rooted in African ancestry and espoused by many African nationalists and US Black Power activists. By defining those classified as “Coloured” and “Indian” as well as “African” as Black, Saso sought to forge an intellectual and political community rooted in apartheid’s racial exclusions. 

For Saso activists, Blackness was as much a way of thinking and feeling as a way of looking — a definition that owed much to Fanon. A Black psychiatrist from Martinique who trained in France, Fanon theorised colonialism as a system of oppression that entailed psychological, economic and political domination. Pervasive racism, he argued, was the product of not only laws and interactions but also nursery rhymes, school books and advertisements. 

Racism functioned, Fanon said, by co-opting Blacks through their internalisation of white culture, including beauty standards. For those who embraced Fanon’s writings, the use of skin lighteners appeared as a concrete manifestation of this internalisation.

Reflecting on her time in Saso, the current minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma once explained that Black Consciousness activists interpreted skin lighteners’ popularity as evidence of how “white people have actually made us feel that even the way we look is not right.” 

Such feelings, according to Dlamini-Zuma, prompted Saso to prioritise “restoring pride and confidence” before undertaking any other activism: “[We could not] organise politically in a people who psychologically didn’t think they are of any value. The first to do would be to make people feel … they are good as they are. They don’t have to imitate anyone else.”

Manufacturers responded to this changing political terrain. In 1977, local cosmetics firm Twins Products, which dominated the skin lightening market, rebranded its range. With “a hunch that the concept ‘Black is beautiful’ would now catch on in Soweto”, Twins Products introduced a new product, Tanlite, with the slogan “For the Young, the Black and the Beautiful”. 

More than skin deep: Unearthing a problem of epidemic proportions 

As skin lightener manufacturers adjusted advertising to preserve their market, South African researchers were busy producing some of the world’s most in-depth studies of skin lighteners’ active ingredient, the chemical hydroquinone. 

Between 1969 and 1975, the local skin lightener manufacturer, Nicholas Research Laboratories, supported an 840-person study on skin lighteners. The work concluded that 3% hydroquinone cream was relatively effective, but higher percentages often produced irritation followed by hyperpigmentation, or darkening of patches of skin. However, when irritation turned to hyperpigmentation, researchers wrote in a 1974 paper for the journal Dermatology, users visited dermatology clinics to demand “yet another and more powerful ‘lightener’.” 

With greater use, the lightening and clarifying effects of hydroquinone turned to darkening as people developed chubabas — dark or purple patches of skin on the cheeks and below the eyes. 

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But what were popularly known as chubabas, G.H Findlay and University of Pretoria colleagues called an epidemic of a condition called exogenous ochronosis. Ultimately, in a 1975 article in the Medical Chronicle journal, Findlay and his team were the first to identify hydroquinone as a trigger for the disorder. They dated the country’s epidemic of the blue-black patches to 1966 when skin lightener manufacturers increased concentrations of hydroquinone in creams from 3% to upward of 8%. 

These findings made Findlay and his team into the world’s foremost authorities on hydroquinone-induced exogenous ochronosis. Eventually, their work would result in US recommendations that said creams that contained more than 2% of hydroquinone put consumers at risk for developing the skin condition South Africans knew as chubabas. Ultraviolet radiation, the US body added, heightened that risk.  

By 1980, Findlay sought to draw even more attention to the growing skin lightener problem. Together with a clinical assistant, he analysed 13 skin lightener brands. One company, they discovered, manufactured seven of the 13 brands tested, including the two that contained the highest concentrations of hydroquinone of between 6.5 and 7.5%, according to work published in the South African Medical Journal.

They’d stumbled across Twins Products’ singular role in the skin lightener trade.

How anti-apartheid activists and scientists conspired against industry

Medical researchers now understood skin lighteners as a complex issue in which health concerns collided with commercial interests, and where political awareness might transform aesthetic preferences. And by the 1980s, political and medical opposition to skin lighteners began to achieve some results. 

In 1980, the South African health department turned the US hydroquinone guidelines into a national regulation. Still, medical professionals believed that, even at lower concentrations, hydroquinone was dangerous. 

Black organisations including the Azanian People’s Organisation and the Inkatha Women’s Brigade joined dermatologists in calling for a complete ban. Together, they convinced Drum to stop carrying skin lightener ads. For three decades, the magazine had featured advertising that made light-toned beauty queens iconic figures across much of the subcontinent. 

When announcing its decision to drop the ads in 1983, Drum pointed to health concerns over hydroquinone and pressure from political groups who considered the ads “an affront to the dignity of Black people”. Media reports at the time said it cost the magazine R50 000 in annual revenue.

Buyer beware: Regulations didn’t cure our obsession with lighteners — for more reasons than you think

On 10 August 1990, South Africa banned the importation, manufacture and sale of cosmetic skin lighteners. It became illegal to add hydroquinone and other depigmenting agents to cosmetics. 

South Africa became the first — and remains the only country in the world — to prohibit all cosmetic claims to bleaching, lightening or whitening. This combination bears witness to the broader antiracist political movement that fought for the regulations.

But regulations did not extinguish consumer desires for skin lighteners. A 2015 study among 600 women of African and Indian ancestries in Durban and published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that roughly one-third used them for a variety of reasons. Two-thirds of those surveyed explained that they sought to remedy skin problems, including hyperpigmentation and acne, while one-third sought overall lightening. This diversity of reasons poses a challenge to explanations of skin lightening that focus solely on racism and colourism.

More concerning still, a 2016 study of 29 over-the-counter lighteners in Cape Town found that about 40% contained mercury, research published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Dermatology shows. Mercury-laced cosmetics can damage the eyes, lungs, skin and kidneys, the World Health Organisation warns.

For modern public health campaigns to make inroads against these dangerous products, they will need to address the complex and varied reasons why people use skin lighteners — and combine antiracist activism with increased awareness about the dangers of lighteners’ use. Like the South African protest of the 1980s, they will need to combine antiracist activism with close attention to the health effects of active ingredients and mobilise greater resources for underfunded regulatory agencies. Public health activism will also need to address skin lighteners’ dual status as cosmetics and drugs, a status that has long hinged on the slippery distinction between beauty preparations and therapeutic treatments and complicated regulation.

Lynn M Thomas is a professor of history at the University of Washington in the United States and author of the book, Politics of the Womb: Women, reproduction and the state in Kenya. This is an edited extract of her latest book through the Wits University Press, Beneath the Surface: A transnational history of skin lighteners.