If you know where to look, skin lightening and whitening products are readily available to buy in Coventry.
They come in the form of creams, soaps and serums, and promise to lighten skin tone, correct dark spots and even change your life.
Sold primarily in communities with a larger ethnic minority population, they can be found in mini supermarkets, beauty and hair shops and even at the tills of greengrocers.
The skin lightening and whitening industry is a booming business and campaigners want to ban the sale of these products.
But others say that shops are just doing their job to meet demand.
One of the companies we spoke to said the products aren’t targeted at any specific communities, and some people use them due to medical conditions.
What are the risks to using these products and why do people want to lighten their skin? This is the first of a two-part CoventryLive investigation into the sale and use of skin lightening products in Coventry.
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What is skin lightening and whitening?
Skin lightening is a complex topic that draws debate from both sides.
Their primary purpose is to use products to slow down the production of melanin to appear lighter skinned.
The concept of brightening and lightening your skin to look more appealing has existed for hundreds of years.
Among people in Tudor and Regency Britain, especially among the aristocracy, people tried to stay as ‘white’ as possible so as to appear pure and appealing.
But in their efforts to attain porcelain skin, they would use whitening products which in those days often contained harmful poisons like arsenic and lead.
But this thinking is not too dissimilar to the cultural value that some ethnic minority communities continue to put on having light skin.
Skin lightening is rooted in concepts such as perceptions of beauty through film, television and culture, the caste system (an ancient Indian system of social categories that still exists), and desirability.
Before we interviewed Coventry residents from black and minority ethnic communities on the topic, we wanted to see how many lightening and whitening products we could find on the shelves in Coventry.
Have you encountered skin lightening products? Answer our poll below:
If you are from an ethnic minority background, have you ever been introduced to, or used, skin lightening / whitening products?
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Skin lightening and whitening products for sale in Coventry
In one morning, we visited three areas in Coventry: Foleshill, Walsgrave and the city centre.
Within minutes of our search we were met with shelves and cabinets packed full of skin brightening and lightening tonics, serums, exfoliating scrubs and face washes.
Foleshill: Three shops visited
We found whitening products in all three shops. Fair and Lovely (now re-branded as Glow and Lovely) face wash and soap, Himalaya clear complexion whitening face scrub, Himalaya Herbals natural glow fairness face wash.
Coventry city centre: Four shops visited
We found skin lightening products in one shop. In this particular shop, there was a skin lightening section, with more than 15 different lightening products. These included lemon lightening serum, whitening soaps and creams, brightening cream, and fade cream.
Walsgrave: One shop visited
We went down Ball Hill high street and found one shop with a cabinet full of skin lightening and whitening products.
The main takeaway from our trip was how accessible these items were. Most were at the tills near the checkouts, and some were even part of the shop’s own skin lightening section.
The whitening products we found on our search in Coventry were all legal.
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Coventry’s diversity in numbers
We are yet to receive the results of the latest 2021 census, but 2011 census figures can still help us build a picture of the demographic that these products cater for.
Coventry City Council figures from the 2011 census show around one-third (33 per cent) of Coventry’s population is from minority ethnic groups compared to 20 per cent for England as a whole.
The largest minority ethnic group are Asian/Asian British communities, making up 16.3 per cent of the city’s population; including 8.8 per cent with an Indian background.
The next largest minority group are people with a White Other background, who make up 4.9 per cent of the population.
Coventry’s population with a Black African background has grown to four per cent, which is now more than double the English average (1.8 per cent).
Some local authorities, like Southwark Council, have led specialist taskforces in the past to crack down on such sales.
Figures from London Trading Standards show that from 2016 to 2020 enforcement action on those selling banned whitening creams resulted in fines totalling over £565,000.
And action is also being taken right here on our doorstep.
We took our findings to Coventry Trading Standards, who confirmed their officers in Coventry discovered the presence of hydroquinone, a banned ingredient, in skin lightening products on sale in the city.
A spokesman for Coventry Trading Standards told CoventryLive: “Business compliance team officers in Coventry have discovered the presence of hydroquinone in skin lightening products when they have been sent for analysis by a third party appointed analyst.
“Often identical products on sale are actually produced for different world markets and can have ingredients not permitted for the EU market (now UK market) and their presence on sale indicates importation by other than the manufacturer.”
They added: “Anyone finding cosmetic products on sale that are unlikely to meet the legislative requirements for sale in the UK can contact Citizens Advice Consumer Services.”
Creams that contain hydroquinone, unless prescribed by a doctor, are banned in the UK because of their serious side effects.
Hydroquinone stops the production of melanin, but you need melanin to protect the skin against UV radiation.
Use of products with hydroquinone can also lead to liver damage and skin cancer.
Traders that choose to sell skin lightening products with banned ingredients can be prosecuted under the Cosmetic Products Enforcement Regulations 2013, and face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to £20,000.
‘I want to look lighter’
The suppression of melanin can also cause your body to overcompensate and produce more, leading to dark marks and sometimes even painful and uneven skin tone.
This is what happened to 66-year-old Surrinder Kumar, a retired manufacturing specialist from Coventry, who spent hundreds of pounds on lightening treatment.
He told CoventryLive: “You pay a lot of money, you are willing to pay a lot of money. It’s just [left] all these marks on my face.
“It’s different, I want to trial things out because I want to look lighter.”
He added: “I get really tanned when I go to India. I stay out of the sun.”
Mr Kumar said that since his retirement four years ago he has had more time to look at skin lightening treatments.
He tried a treatment with a beautician in Coventry that removes the outer layer of your skin in a bid to whiten it.
“It was good, it was peeling off after a few days, [but] it left marks.”
Simi Sandhu, a 25-year-old make up artist from Nuneaton has also come into contact with skin lightening products.
“I don’t go out of my way to go fairer, my mum gave me Fair and Lovely to use when I was a teenager, I must have used it twice,” she said.
“My sideburns went blonde, I hated that, it was literally awful going to school with blonde on your face when you have black hair. My mum came from India, I know what their mentality is, so it’s just slowly changing it for her and saying ‘no I’m not doing this anymore’.
“She did it with the best intentions. The first time she showed me how to use it – you mix it with water and put it on your face and wash it off, and then I got blonde hairs, it just made my hairs whiter.
“I did that twice and said I’m not doing this anymore.”
As part of this investigation, CoventryLive spoke to six people in the community who had either encountered or used skin lightening products.
We will examine this more closely in part two of our investigation, which looks at the cultural and historical roots of perceptions of light skin.
Response from businesses
CoventryLive contacted all of the cosmetic companies mentioned and pictured in this investigation.
We did not find any banned or illegal substances in any of the products we picked up in Coventry.
We heard back from Mamado International, who produce ‘Soft n White’, one of the lightening lotions we picked up in the city.
A spokesperson told CoventryLive: “Mamado has over 1,000 customers with retail outlets worldwide hence does not particularly target any specific areas.
“In addition, lightening products have been around for centuries and in particular our brand tend to focus particularly for customers who like to do the following for the skin: moisturise, smoother, soften, eliminate dark spots, reduce blemishes, exfoliate, and help even skin tone throughout their skin.
“Please note many people sometimes require our products as they might have damaged their skin due to sun burn or sometime shave freckles. In addition there are several medical reasons behind dark spots or an uneven skin tone.
“Aging and sun damage can leave dark spots on the face. Melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) are both conditions that cause darkening over areas of the body that are exposed to the sun more often, such as the forehead and cheeks. PIH leads to a darker complexion in areas that were inflamed because of trauma, which can include scarring or severe acne that leaves dark spots after it resolves.
“Hormonal imbalances and endocrine disease like Addison’s disease can also lead to darkening of the skin. Addison’s disease is when the adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones. Those with Addison’s disease produce a high level of adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the melanocytes to produce more melanin, resulting in skin darkening. People who are affected by these illnesses may use skin lightening creams to counteract the darkening effects on their skin.
“Skin lightening creams can be an option to help with any unwanted skin darkening or spots. But be realistic about how effective these products can be in brightening skin tone or reducing the appearance of dark spots.”
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