My toxic love affair with skin lightening creams

Illustration: Chuva Featherstone

Illustration: Chuva Featherstone

I take a detour to my local black hair and beauty shop. “I’ll have my usual,” I tell the shopkeeper. He hands me two bottles of what I called my “creamy crack” – skin bleaching creams with hydroquinone, a chemical ingredient that has been banned in Europe, Australia and Japan since 2001 due to high amounts of mercury. (How the shopkeeper attained them, I never cared to ask. I do know he seemed to have a never-ending supply.)

My toxic love affair with skin lighteners began when I was 14. It was a tradition I picked up from the women in my Afro-Caribbean family. I would watch my mother, who is more fair-skinned than I am, scour the aisles of black hair and beauty stores for her favourite bleaching creams. Deep down, I think she knew it was wrong. But like many other first-generation African women of similar age, she referred to her bleaching routine as “toning”, insinuating benign dark spot removal, and only on her face. Over time, I watched her use it on her entire body.

In middle school, I would watch all the boys fawn over lighter-skinned or mixed-race girls, with their Eurocentric features, loose curls and baby hair styled meticulously into swirls and loops. Then I would come home and watch mixed-race models pursued by dark-skinned rappers in MTV Base rap videos . . .

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