Accompanied by body-armor vested London police officers, Lambeth Senior Trading Standards Officer Ray Bouch walks into a beauty and cosmetics shop on Brixton’s Electric Avenue.
Today, he’s in search of contraband cosmetics: illegal skin bleaching creams British authorities say can be harmful to consumers. Within minutes, he’s found almost a dozen bars of soap listing a banned bleaching agent on the box.
“Illegal bleaching creams and soaps are a major problem,” Bouch says. “And once we eradicate it from Brixton, it will go to another borough where there’s a big Asian or Black population.”
Skin bleaching—using chemical or natural products to lighten skin color—is common practice in the Americas, Africa, across Asia, and increasingly, in Europe.
Psychologists say consumer demand can be traced to perceptions that lighter skinned or white people are more successful, intelligent and sexually desirable.
And as the UK’s Asian, African and African-Caribbean communities grow, so too—cosmetics industry experts say—does ethnic spending power for products promoted to lighten skin tone.
The police officers say they are stationed to keep the peace, as Bouch asks the store manager why the banned products are for sale.
She says the bleaching soaps were an oversight: “The soaps are just something that’s come on our shelves without us realizing. To sell this would be stupidity,” she says.
But Bouch believes some shops are continuing to sell illegal skin creams despite the risk of fines because demand for the products is so high. “The only thing I can say is that it is demand-led. Shop owners are making a great profit from it,” Bouch says.
Cosmetics industry analysts say cosmetics companies are realizing there’s money to be made here. They argue minority communities are an underserved market with a long tradition of buying bleaching products—legal or otherwise.
Dr. Dele Olajide, a leading psychologist at King’s College London, blames consumer demand on the media centering on fair skinned blacks like American pop singer Beyonce and British actress Thandie Newton.
“The image that the media presents about black people is that we are inferior, we are not as good as everybody else. But those who are successful and going places are those who are light-skinned people. So one might say that the desire to be like white people underpins people’s wanting to be fairer-skinned,” Olajide says.
So-called “colorism” isn’t limited to blacks: A commercial seen on Indian satellite channels and on YouTube stars Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan promoting a skin cream called “Fair & Handsome.”
The commercial shows a remarkably glum dark-skinned Indian man who, after using the skin lightening cream, turns many shades whiter. He now walks with confidence—and with a lovely lady running to his side.