StoriesPart of Skin Bleaching

Identifying skin lightening agents in cosmetics

What’s in your moisturiser? If it claims to ‘brighten’ your skin or ‘even out’ skin tone, it probably contains skin-bleaching agents. But finding out what those agents are can often be virtually impossible.

Words by Ngunan Adamu and photography by Amaal Said

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Photograph of a woman wearing a pink head scarf facing towards the camera. Her face is out of focus and partially obscured by a bunch of flowers.
Aliyah. © Amaal Said.

Since researching skin-bleaching products, I have been made aware that many high-street shops, for example Boots, Holland & Barrett and Superdrug, to name a few, sell products that contain skin-lightening agents. While these products might be legal, given that they are so widely available, how would the average person know what it is in them and whether the contents are harmful? Even more widespread are the harsher products you can find ‘under the counter’ in independent beauty shops.

If you google skin-bleaching products, the first thing that comes up is hydroquinone. This chemical can give the effect that many are looking for, but high levels of hydroquinone in products are dangerous, and excessive use is harmful for the skin.

I came across a research paper published by Waters Corporation, an organisation with its headquarters in Massachusetts, which designs analytical technologies. In the study, chemists used a method called UHPLC (ultra-high performance liquid chromatography) to identify skin-lightening agents in cosmetic products. By separating the different components of the products, they aimed to identify the percentages of pharmaceutical ingredients – such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids and tretinoin – in these misleadingly labelled ‘cosmetic’ products.

Corticosteroids are drugs used to treat inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, and long-term use can cause permanent skin damage, and even high blood pressure and diabetes. Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A and is used to treat acne. Both tretinoin and corticosteroids help lighten skin.

Photograph of a woman wearing a pink head scarf. We see a fragment of her face reflected in a shard of mirror. behind the mirror is a window and the view of the out of focus outside.
Aliyah. © Amaal Said.

Aliyah, 23: “I put my skin through a lot. It hurt to go out in the sun. I was in pain and it just wasn’t worth it. I hate that I did that to myself. I remember being 16 and wanting to feel pretty.”

The scientists at Waters Corporation found that several of the samples bought online tested positive for skin-lightening agents that are not legal in cosmetic products. The labels were misleading and, in some cases, the skin-lightening agents were not listed on the product leaflets inside the boxes, making it more likely that people would use the products long term, and suffer adverse side effects.

I have easily purchased skin-bleaching products in the UK, Nigeria and Dubai. Surprisingly, I was able to find well-known British cosmetic brands that sold skin-whitening products in both Nigeria and Dubai. These products were labelled correctly as skin-whitening creams, but you could not get the same products in the UK.

It struck me that these companies knew their products did not comply with EU regulations. In the UK, harmful skin-bleaching products are available online and ‘under the counter’ in shops, and use euphemistic terms such as ‘even skin tone’ or ‘skin brightening’.

The booming market in Black beauty products

Curiosity prompted me to visit several African and Caribbean hair and beauty shops in Liverpool, which were all owned by South Asian men. On a few occasions there would be one young African woman working in a shop who would give you advice. But the majority of the time the shops would be staffed with South Asian men only.

I asked all of them who usually bought skin-bleaching products, and they all said Black women, so I wondered where Asian women go to buy skin-bleaching products, especially as I’ve never seen any Asian woman come to these shops. The issue of South Asian men selling beauty products to Black women has long been a controversial topic.

Black women spend six times more on hair and beauty products than white women, according to a survey by L’Oréal, so is it puzzling that there are so few Black female hair and beauty shop owners. On days when I was just buying hair products in shops owned by South Asian men, before I started my research, I was always asked if I wanted to try skin-bleaching cream, until finally they realised I was never going to buy.

It felt awkward that a man of a different nationality was trying to push a product that he thought I needed or should want. At times, the hard sell you get almost feels like you are being offered drugs. However, as with most UK problems, if it’s not happening in London, action isn’t taken.

At times, the hard sell you get almost feels like you are being offered drugs.

I hope to have the products I bought tested, and I will be talking with our local councillors to make sure that every hair and beauty shop is checked thoroughly. I suspect that although only a small number of women in Liverpool have admitted to me that they use skin-bleaching products, the high stock levels of skin-bleaching creams in beauty shops tell a different story.

Skin bleaching seems to be very addictive, like taking drugs or drinking alcohol to excess. The women who use the products know they’re harmful, but they are addicted to that look; as long as they get the ‘glow’ they are looking for, they don’t think about the damage.

It would be perfect if there was a way of home testing your cosmetics to see if they contained harmful components. For many years we have argued against animal testing for cosmetics; if only we used that same energy against the covert use of harmful ingredients in skin products.

About the contributors

Photograph of Ngunan Adamu

Ngunan Adamu


Ngunan Adamu is a radio presenter and producer for BBC Radio Merseyside, CEO and founder of iWoman Academy/Media, and an international multimedia trainer for the BBC.

Photograph of Amaal Said

Amaal Said


Amaal Said is a Danish-born Somali photographer and poet, based in London. Her photographs have been featured in Vogue, the Guardian and the New Yorker. In 2017, she was exhibited in Los Angeles, and in 2018 her photography was featured in the fourth volume of African Lens and exhibited in Accra, Ghana.