The obsession with all things bright and shiny, from hair to teeth, from face to body, inspired the beauty industry to take on the vintage, sepia tones associated with age and ripeness and offer beauty products and treatments that could offer a clear, blank, and often brightened slate to celebrities and regular consumers alike. Although certainly the plethora of products and treatments available now are more varied and the options more copious, the desire to erase the signs of sun damage, age, wrinkles, spots, lines, and uneven skin tone is not a contemporary phenomenon.
In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was known to use aloe to heal and nurture her face from the African sun and to enjoy milk baths because the lactic acid exfoliated and softened her skin. In ancient China, fair, porcelain skin was a sign of beauty and elegance and perhaps more importantly, of social status—only the wealthy and the aristocratic could stay indoors protecting their complexions while peasants labored under the sun. Chinese women would swallow remedies of ground pearl from seashells to maintain their pale skin tones. In Japan, nightingale droppings were originally used to remove stains from kimonos and other silk garments. Its use was so effective that soon geishas began using the droppings to remove their heavy makeup and to brighten their complexions. (Nightingale droppings have experienced a revival. Cutting-edge spas such as Ten Thousand Waves Japanese Spa and Resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Shikuza New York Day Spa and London’s Hari’s Salonare now offering nightingale facials that incorporate dried, pulverized, and ultraviolet-light-sanitized droppings.) Queen Elizabeth I protected her pale skin at all costs, wearing hats in the sun and using bright red dyes on her cheeks and lips to emphasize the lightness of her complexion. Elizabethan women attempted to emulate the queen by using her favorite mixture of white lead and vinegar, known as ceruse, to lighten their skin; this was a highly poisonous but aesthetically effective concoction. In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm told of queens who longed for baby princesses, sighing, “Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony.” Even in the golden age of cinema, movie stars and ingénues had the smoothest of complexions, the palest of skins—from Marlene Dietrich to Judy Garland, from Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn. Marlene Dietrich even sold her secret of achieving beautiful skin, becoming one of the first modern-day celebrities to endorse beauty products—Lux Soap and Woodbury Cold Cream.
Race In The 20th Century
The obsession with light or lighter skin and the social advantages that came from having a paler complexion played a dramatic role in the development of African American aesthetic sensibilities. The legend of the turn of the 20th century’s paper bag parties, in which only African Americans with skin color at least as light as a paper bag were admitted, still permeates and perpetuates the hierarchy of complexion. The idea of passing, when light-skinned African Americans could pass as white and hide their ethnic/racial identities and hence move more freely within the American social and class structures, seemed to support the caste system within American society. What were seen as stereotypically African American physical traits, from skin tone to hair type, from body shapes to voice timbres, were characterized as undesirable, unattractive, and unpleasant. Advertisements played on racial fears and prejudices. Products promised “Lighter skin makes you more popular,” and “Quickly, the dark, ugly tones of the skin give way, shade by shade, to light-toned beauty.” It has been argued that although some African American women may have used the creams and concoctions that promised to mask or mute or mutate the objectionable dark tone to a more agreeable, paler shade, the color of their complexion was not enough to guarantee these African American women entry into a more equitable, less prejudiced world. Most recently, L’Oréal Feria was accused of having lightened the complexion of African American singer/actress Beyoncé in a hair color ad to make her more accessible and more palatable to a wider public. L’Oréal Feria has denied this claim vehemently.
Although the post–World War II world soon became enamored with the sun kissed skin associated with the jet set, beach vacations, and the healthy glow of a tan, and although the beauty industry concentrated its efforts on bronzing powders, tanning liquids, and the tanning bed, the whitening/ brightening/bleaching world was still in full swing in the Asian markets. And with the concern over skin cancer and melanoma, and sun damage and aging, more emphasis has been placed on the marketing and researching of whitening and brightening products in the 1990s and the 2000s. Most major cosmetics firms, especially if they have an interest in the East Asian markets, have recently invested their capital in researching and creating products for the whitening and brightening of the face. Although most of these products are marketed as offering whitening capabilities to Asian clients, in the Caucasian markets, these same products are relabeled as brightening. The racial overtones of these words have forced industry executives to sensitize their marketing campaigns in more multicultural areas, where the term whitening is perceived as being more offensive and demeaning.
Skin-lightening creams are among the most popular cosmetic and skin care product purchases in East Asia. Asian beauty companies have been producing products that are geared toward the Asian market and their desire for paler, fairer complexions since the 1970s. Shiseido, SK-II, and Kanebo have all been on the cutting edge of research in anti-aging, skin-brightening, complexion-lightening products and procedures. These products boast such names as Blanc Expert, White-Plus, WhiteLight, Future White Day, Blanc Purete, Fine Fairness, Active White, White Perfect, and Snow UV.
In their desire to look like the pale Asian models in magazines and billboards, women in Hong Kong stormed the department store beauty counters to purchase two new whitening creams in 2002. Soon afterward, a news report warned that these two creams had between 9,000 and 65,000 times the level of mercury content recommended for safe usage. More than a thousand women were on the phones to health department hotlines. Despite these health alerts, the market is enormous and is growing as the rest of the world becomes increasingly interested in whitening and brightening as anti-aging treatments.
Whitening and brightening products are offered by both department store and drugstore brands—from Shiseido, Christian Dior, Elizabeth Arden, and Lancôme to Maybelline, L’Oréal, and Boots. The most popular ingredient in whitening products is hydroquinone, a topical medication that has been used to reduce the discoloration of the skin. It is banned in the European Union. Serious medical debates about the safeness and side effects of the chemical are still raging today. Other products that have been touted as having brightening effects are soy, vitamin A, alpha and beta hydroxyl acid products, vitamin C, and peptides. Treatments that were once reserved for dermatologists and special skin clinics, such as glycolic acid peels, are now widely available.
Whitening, brightening, and bleaching products have also found a niche in cosmetic dental work. Tooth whitening is one of the most popular dental treatments available today. The bleaching of teeth, which can involve using oxidizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, penetrates the enamel of the tooth and helps to oxidize the stains. While originally only available in dentists’ offices, tooth whitening has become an at-home endeavor as well. Toothpaste companies offer whitening toothpastes and mouthwashes. Other companies offer do-it-yourself kits of strips, mouth guards, and paint-on liquids, such as those available from Crest White Strips and Go Smile. The rise of cosmetic dentistry has even produced a few celebrities. The featured dentist on ABC’s Extreme Makeover, Bill Dorfman, has appeared on The Jay Leno Show, The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, and EXTRA. Actress Terri Hatcher even noted that she had a crush on him. VH1’s Best Week Ever called Dr. Dorfman the Dentist to the Stars after pop star Britney Spears reportedly rushed to his office to have an emergency tooth whitening procedure in 2008.