Rapper Azealia Banks, who recently admitted to undergoing skin lightening, thinks it’s no longer important to discuss the “cultural significance” of the controversial process. But the scientific importance of the chemical-heavy ordeal is well worth discussing now that the question of what race means is back in the cultural spotlight. Because, surprise! The process of stripping skin of its pigment is not quite safe.
And Banks knows it. In the 21-minute bike ride rant she posted on Facebook Live, she acknowledged its dangers herself, calling skin bleaching compounds “corrosive” and used “only to sell a dream.” Is that dream — the glorification of whiter skin — worth the physiological risk?
The rapper’s condemnation of skin bleaching chemicals stems from her insistence that skin bleaching and lightening are two different things. The reality is, “bleaching” is a bit of a misnomer: Most of the products out there — including Whitenicious by Dencia, a “dark spot remover” peddled by a Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star and endorsed last year by Banks — don’t remove color from the skin; it simply stops it from being made.
This brings up a pretty elementary question: What is skin color anyway? Your complexion’s unique hues come from the buildup of a brown or black pigment called melanin that’s produced by cells called melanocytes. Darker skin has more melanin blobs wedged within and between its cells; light skin has less. Basking under the sun signals melanocytes to pump more of its inky goods out; the compound is thought to be protective against UV radiation (which is pretty much how tanning works.
So, in theory, it makes sense that preventing the production of melanin would result in a lighter skin color. And many of these products do deliver, as Banks’s evidently paler skin — just like Lil Kim’s and Vybz Kartel’s before her — so distinctly show. But the issue isn’t whether or not the products work. It’s how they work.
The truth is, many of the chemicals that the multibillion-dollar skin whitening industry uses in its products — which range from creams and pills to even candies — aren’t safe. The active ingredient in many skin lightening soaps and creams sold throughout Africa, India, and Asia — where pale skin is still revered as the height of beauty — is mercury, an element straight-up known to be toxic (and banned as a cosmetic ingredient in the U.S.). The World Health Organization, in issuing a public health warning about these products in 2011, warned that the mercury in these products was known to cause kidney damage in addition to anxiety, depression, and psychosis — not to mention skin rashes, discoloration, and scarring. All together, it’s a pretty shitty trade-off for a culturally fueled attempt at denying genetics.
Another industry favorite is a chemical called hydroquinone, which Europe has repeatedly banned in concentrations higher than 1 percent because it’s well known to increase the risk of cancer. In the U.S., it remains FDA-approved up to concentrations as high as 2 percent in over-the-counter prescription creams. In addition to being carcinogenic, it also causes a condition called ochronosis, where the skin becomes (ironically) dark.
There are natural pigment reducers (like vitamins C, A, and B3), herbs (licorice and emblica), and certain fruit acids (azelaic acid from wheat is an example) that are considered safer ways to block melanin production. But they’re not likely to be as potent or immediate as their stronger, more toxic synthetic counterparts.
Banks insists that skin whitening, brightening, lightening, and bleaching are all different things, the minutiae of which she plans to outline in a “huge article,” according to a recent Instagram post. Her assertion isn’t technically wrong: The process of brightening, for example, involves physically scrubbing away a thin layer of skin cells, which can give a person the appearance of being lighter-colored or, at the very least, more even-toned. But by and large, the biological mechanism and the associated risks behind most skin lightening products — the kinds sold — are more or less the same.
Not that it matters to Banks, who, responding to criticisms of hypocrisy (she’s been a notoriously staunch supporter of embracing black identity), retorted in her video: “What’s the difference between getting a nose job and changing your skin color? What’s the difference between wearing a hair weave and changing your skin color?” If she ever does write that article, let’s hope her scientific arguments are stronger than her logical ones.Photos via Getty Images / Cassandra Hannagan