Whitening, Brightening, and Bleaching

Whitening, Brightening, and Bleaching

Whitening, Brightening, and BleachingThe  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.

Global Trends

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.

Health Concerns

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.

Cosmetic Dentistry

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.






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