Rep. Ilhan Omar on Why She’s Taking on the Multi-Billion Dollar Skin-Whitening Industry

February 16, 2021
In The News

We’ve watched as they've lightened and retouched images of celebrities of color, from Beyoncé to Priyanka Chopra to Kerry Washington to Lupita Nyong’o. This message sends ripple effects around the globe that lighter skin is more desirable; and this leads to real life consequences. Many women use creams and soaps to fit into societal expectations of what they should look like—of what beauty standards they should meet. It’s important for us to not only condemn this idea that lighter skin is better, but we also need to understand that using skin-whitening products have lasting and damaging health effects. The issue is universal—according to a 2019 study, the global skin-lightening industry is worth $8.3 billion, and it's not shrinking anytime soon.

This isn’t just my personal opinion—similar sentiments have been echoed by countless women in my Minnesota district who have been personally impacted by this industry. Many of our minority communities, especially our African and Asian communities, have suffered the repercussions of these products.

Skin lightening creams often contain toxic chemicals, such as hydroquinone and mercury, that can lead to discoloration, damaged skin, kidney damage, and—if you're pregnant—birth defects, including neurological damage in early childhood. And because this industry is under-regulated, many of the women who are directly marketed to by the companies who create these products aren’t even aware of the side effects and permanent health issues that can arise. The amendment I introduced aims to change that—we need widespread awareness of the dangers of these creams and lotions to change the narrative surrounding them, and to protect those most vulnerable in our communities.

Amira Adawe, the executive director of the BeautyWell Project, a non-profit that aims to end skin lightening practices, has worked on this issue for decades, pushing for state and federal reform. Because of activists like her, who have vocalized the importance of this issue, we have made meaningful strides on the state and federal level. In Minnesota, we appropriated funds through the Minnesota Department of Health for a grant program to raise awareness of the health effects of these products. This was an important step forward to educate Minnesotans and change the conversation around beauty standards.

This issue is personal to those of us who are brown and Black around the world. It's not about the physical harm; there's the psychological damage that occurs as well. So, for anyone wondering, "Aren't there other important issues to focus on?"this is an important issue. These products were all around me growing up, and when you're constantly told that lighter is better, that is damaging and it perpetuates a dangerous myth that can lead to physical and social harm from other people and from ourselves. It is important to keep in mind that as we fight against anti-Black and anti-brown narratives, we're also fighting the oppression that we've internalized; that have shaped our sense of what, and who, is beautiful. 

I am a mother of two amazing young daughters. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family that celebrated our beauty, and I want to raise them in a family that celebrates their beauty. But I also want to raise them in a society that is different from the one I was raised in; one that not only accepts them, but also celebrates their beauty. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, I hope we can celebrate every shade of Black, redefine beauty standards, and work to root out racism embedded within the beauty industry. In order to see a difference, we must keep raising awareness of this issue. That means talking about it with loved ones, sharing your experiences, and asking your representatives to support legislative efforts to fight this industry. We must continue to speak out until we implement meaningful change.