Why CNN is launching a new series on skin whitening

Updated 12:52 PM ET, Mon November 22, 2021

This story is part of 'White lies', a series by CNN's As Equals investigating skin whitening practices worldwide to expose the underlying drivers of colorism, the industry that profits from it and the cost to individuals and communities. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.

In 2020, the global skin whitening market was reportedly valued at $8.6bn. It is projected to grow to $13.7bn by 2025.
If we live in a culture where market size is synonymous with societal importance, then why aren't we talking about skin whitening?
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world last year, colorism (which is defined as discrimination against skin color within a racial or ethnic group -- favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin) had something of a media moment.
How much money is spent on skin whitening?

  • The skin whitening market was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2020, according to market intelligence firm Global Industry Analysts
  • The US makes up a third of the global market
  • The Asia-Pacific region is the most lucrative market, according to Future Market Insights
  • Products are most popular in places where beauty norms favor lighter skin

Many articles were written highlighting the fact that some of the very companies that were virtue-signaling their commitment to Black and brown lives in one part of the world, were also manufacturing and marketing products associating lighter skin with prosperity and desirability in another part of the world.
But skin lightening, whitening or bleaching is not just a Global South problem -- the US makes up a third of the 2020 market.
This harmful beauty standard affects billions of people around the world and As Equals, CNN's gender inequality reporting project, is intending to give it the attention it deserves with a new series, White lies: Exposing the dangers of skin whitening.
Before we could begin, we needed to understand skin whitening -- the products and practices -- in its current and varied local contexts, as well as to identify what gaps exist in how skin whitening is covered by international media and seek to understand why women were subjecting themselves to beauty routines that are ultimately damaging to their health.
Over the past several months, we've gathered together dozens of people with lived experience of using skin whitening creams, healthcare professionals, regulatory agencies, researchers and academics and others who, for one reason or another, have committed time and other resources to testing products or raising awareness about this harmful practice and its root causes.
We also invited representatives from the skin whitening industry to join us in these conversations but have so far been unsuccessful in getting cosmetic companies around the table.
What we learned from these conversations has convinced us that skin whitening is a global menace masquerading as a helpful solution to the "problem" of dark skin. Toxic Ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone, that are regulated, routinely make their way into creams; and ultimately the false promise that lighter is better is so heavily marketed, so endemic and unquestioned that women (and in some cultures men, too) go to extreme lengths for "fairer" skin -- risks be damned.
In the coming months, led by series editor, Meera Senthilingam, White lies aims to reveal the scale of the use of harmful skin whitening products and the misuse of prescription medication in order to lighten skin. We want to raise awareness of colorism which often underpins their use; and hold to account corporations and government agencies who manufacture, sell, or inadequately regulate these products.
You can also join the global conversation on social media by using the hashtag #FightingWhitening.
If you'd like to work with us, or send us tips, please email asequals@cnn.com.