Like many teenagers, when Françoise Mbabazi was a young girl growing in Uganda, she suffered from acne. At 14 years old, Mbabazi’s sister took her to see a dermatologist and she was given a cream called Pimplex. She would put the smooth, white cream on her acne, and pretty soon, she noticed it lightened her skin slightly.
This was Mbabazi’s first exposure to the world of skin bleaching. She soon realized that this practice was incredibly common among young girls in her hometown, who would carry around little tubes of creams like Pimplex to rub on their faces. People would also buy concoctions mixed by local women to lighten their skin, many of which contained bleaching products, Mbabazi said.
“They would slather it on their face and be under the shade of their sheds, or in their house for the next three days, and when they got out, they would peel off this layer and you could see through their skin,” she recalled.
Skin bleaching, or a cosmetic treatment to reduce the melanin in the skin, is widely practiced worldwide. There are tons of products—from bleaching creams to steroids to natural ointments—that people use to make their complexion whiter.
Yet these treatments come with significant risks, including an increased chance of skin cancer, infections, acne, poor wound healing and allergic reactions. Many of these cosmetic products also contain dangerous levels of mercury, according to a report by the World Health Organization.
This is a big issue for Black and Brown people, said Mbabazi, who also works as a senior community organizer with The Colorado Trust. This is what spurred her last year to establish MySkinGlobal, a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to changing the conversation about skin color. By partnering with other activists, schools and beauty companies, Mbabazi’s goal is to make MySkinGlobal the top advocate for skin health and decrease the number of young people engaging in skin bleaching across the globe.
“It’s not so much to shame people who are using these products; it’s really about normalizing this conversation,” said Mbabazi. “It’s about talking about who we are as a people, it’s about talking about the value of darker skin, setting proper values for generations to come, studying about the skin that we are in.”
The practice of skin bleaching dates back to around 200 B.C. According to a 2021 paper on the history and origins of skin bleaching in the journal Dermatology, the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks would use honey with olive oil to lighten their skin. Ancient Chinese societies used chalk and rice powder to whiten their faces. Many populations also applied lead face masks, a practice that carried into the Middle Ages and Renaissance period in Europe and often caused disfigurement and lead poisoning. During the 1800s, people would nibble on arsenic wafers throughout the day to lighten their complexion and remove any freckles, pimples and other facial marks.
“Skin lightening isn’t just a single phenomenon that has one origin,” said Nina Jablonski, PhC, PhD, an anthropologist at Penn State University who studies the evolution of skin color in humans.
For example, in traditional agricultural societies in Europe and Asia, there was a preference for light-skinned people: “People were looked up to if they had untanned skin, because [it was assumed that] they had to be better off because they didn’t have to labor in the fields,” said Jablonski. Whiter skin in India is linked to the caste system, and the belief that people with lighter complexions have better moral qualities and are closer to holiness.
Colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade also played a significant role in skin lightening in places like India, sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. During the time of slavery in the U.S., “light skin came to be associated among African Americans with privilege—with being able to be free of the whip of the masters in the field, be free of the bone-breaking toil,” Jablonski said.
Today, skin bleaching is a multibillion-dollar industry with especially large consumer bases in Asia and Africa. Up to 75% of women in Nigeria, 60% of women in Senegal and 50% of women in Mali are estimated to use bleaching creams regularly. Additionally, an estimated 40% of South Koreans use skin lightening agents, and in India, half of all spending in the skincare industry is for lightening products. Although not as prevalent in the U.S., skin bleaching is still incredibly common among Black and Brown communities, said Jablonski. Yet research on the pervasiveness of this practice in the U.S. is lacking.
As a result, the industry was estimated to be worth $8.6 billion in 2020, and is forecasted to reach $12.3 billion by 2027, according to one market research company.
“There is still this lingering, historical, cultural impression that light skin is preferable, and it’s been strongly reinforced by modern advertising,” Jablonski said.
Mbabazi has seen the influence of the skin-lightening industry on young, impressionable kids firsthand. She recalls a moment when her sister said she wasn’t beautiful because she had dark, black skin, as opposed to Mbabazi, who has lighter skin.
“There is no reason for me to go to school, I will never be able to have a job that I choose, I will never marry a man of my dreams,” Mbabazi remembers her sister exclaiming. “Nobody will ever want to marry me because I’m Black.”
To combat this prejudice, Mbabazi and members of MySkinGlobal are creating a school curriculum that talks about skin, colorism, peer pressure and self-esteem. This is particularly relevant for teenagers who are in the process of figuring out who they are and how they want to present in today’s society, said Jablonski.
“It’s so important for young people in middle school and high school to be told that they are beautiful—their original beauty, their original skin color, their original hair. They are beautiful as they are,” Jablonski noted.
The curriculum, which is currently being developed by MySkinGlobal member Christina Jones, who works for Denver Public Schools, is inspired by a series of K-12 courses on evolutionary biology created by Jablonski and Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Called Finding Your Roots, these classes aim to connect students with their ancestry.
“One of the most fundamental questions we all ask ourselves is kind of, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’” said Brandon Ogbunu, PhD, an evolutionary biologist from Yale University who worked as an instructor for a Finding Your Roots camp for kids ages 10-13. “It’s as natural a question as human beings have asked ourselves since the beginning of time.”
The series also includes lessons on how genes work and the evolution of skin color. “It’s important for people to realize that there is no grade of better to less better skin color,” said Jablonski. “Skin color is a reflection of our ancestors’ adaptation to ultraviolet radiation—period. There is no value attached to it.”
Getting schools to sign off on a new curriculum will take some time. MySkinGlobal is currently in conversation with a few schools in the Denver area, and the plan is to conduct a pilot study in three separate schools to gauge syllabus efficacy before wider implementation. The schools are excited, said Mbabazi, as they’ve never seen a curriculum that really dives into loving your own skin color.
The nonprofit also intends to partner with organizations that produce natural beauty products and support peoples’ bodies exactly as they are. In the meantime, the goal is to get the message about skin bleaching out to the public using every means possible.
Jackie Pilgrim, one of the spokespeople for MySkinGlobal, is working to teach others that their value is not based on their skin color. “When you want to destroy someone, you dissect them—so we’re not a whole human being anymore, we’re just our skin,” said Pilgrim.
Pilgrim appreciates that MySkinGlobal’s tactics and messaging extend beyond simply listing off the dangers of skin bleaching. Instead, the organization is working to heal people’s mental and emotional pain surrounding their complexion. She compares it to when she was trying to stop smoking; all the smoking cessation commercials in the world “wouldn’t get me to stop,” said Pilgrim. “I had to address the pain within.”
Jablonski is also trying to educate the masses through social media. “People are watching videos. They want to see really good information. And if you put it on YouTube or TikTok, or if you have an Instagram feed or whatever, you can get through to thousands of people and get some really good feedback,” said Jablonski.
There is still much work to be done, but Mbabazi and her team are determined to change the conversation around skin and beauty. Black and Brown people want so badly to fit into a society defined by what we are not, that they will risk their health to do so, said Mbabazi: “At what cost can we continue to try to be white?”