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Social media is rife with skin-whitening products. But little is being done to regulate the market

<i>Tech Transparency Project</i><br/>A test ad by the Tech Transparency Project that aimed to intentionally violate Meta's policies was approved by Facebook.
Tech Transparency Project
A test ad by the Tech Transparency Project that aimed to intentionally violate Meta's policies was approved by Facebook.

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN Editors: Meera Senthilingam, Eliza Anyangwe; Illustrations: Kathy Kim; Data journalist: Carlotta Dotto; Researchers: Elizabeth Yee, Jacqui Palumbo

Once primarily sold in markets and beauty stores, skin-lightening products have exploded in their availability online and today, they are pervasive on every major social media platform.

On Facebook and Instagram, vendors hawk creams and serums that promise lighter skin yet offer scant information about the products themselves, while on YouTube and TikTok you can find thousands of tutorials by people promoting potent products or home remedies without qualifications that support their claims. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #skinwhitening has over 254 million views, while #skinlightening has another 62 million.

“Social media has become the most powerful tool right now for the sale of skin-lightening products,” says Dr. Anita Benson, Nigeria-based dermatologist and founder of the Embrace Melanin Initiative to combat colorism and harmful skin-lightening practices in Africa.

Over the years, Benson has treated many people experiencing skin issues following the use and misuse of skin-whitening products, including many women who have purchased them on social media. She is concerned that social media platforms are helping people perpetuate colorist ideals — the belief that lighter skin is associated with beauty, success and often also wealth — and that they are now also providing a marketplace for the products to act on these ideals.

Previous research on other forms of media show a strong influence on colorism, explained Amanda Raffoul, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s public health incubator STRIPED, who is studying the way these products are promoted on TikTok. “But there’s little known about how (skin-lightening) products are promoted across social media platforms,” she told CNN.

Though the broader impact remains to be seen, experts like Benson are alarmed by what they are currently witnessing firsthand. She points to last year’s #glowupchallenge — a hashtag with over 4 billion views on TikTok — as an example in which users compared before-and-after images of themselves. Many posts that Benson saw showed people becoming lighter skinned and she believes such appearance-based viral challenges have made bleaching (whitening) products “more popular and more acceptable.”

Influencing power

Also making the practice, and products, more acceptable are social media influencers, many of whom are paid to advertise skin-lightening cosmetics, pills and injections — though some may be pressured into doing so, as BuzzFeed News reported in 2020.

For example, one of the leading live streamers on Chinese social media platform Douyin, Li Jiaqi, has promoted skin lightening to his 44.8 million followers, while another popular streamer, Luo Wangyu, has advised his 19.4 million followers that “to achieve whiter skin, you need to both whiten your skin and get rid of the yellow.”

Nigerian influencer Okuneye Idris Olanrewaju, known as Bobrisky, promotes an aspirational lifestyle using Lagos-based skin lightening brands to her 4.5 million Instagram followers and 1 million followers on Snapchat.

Back in 2018, American reality star Blac Chyna, who has over 16 million followers on Instagram, faced backlash when she announced that she was partnering with the brand Whitenicious on a brightening cream. Although that post was deleted, the celebrity has maintained a partnership with the company and the Whitenicious x Blac Chyna collection continues to sell a range of “brightening” products while the company more broadly promotes skin lightening on its Instagram account.

Whitenicious founder, singer Dencia, has previously defended her products, saying they don’t contain harmful bleaching ingredients like mercury, hydroquinone or steroids, which are found in many other lightening products.

None of the influencers or brands named returned CNN’s requests for comment.

Read: Skin whitening: What is it, what are the risks and who profits?

A global marketplace that is easy to set up and hard to control

Experts warn that smaller vendors in particular are likely to have fewer measures in place to ensure the products they are selling on social media are safe. It’s simple to set up a Facebook or Instagram shop, post a Marketplace listing or simply ask interested users to send a message for transactions.

Many products advertised as skin whiteners and lighteners contain mercury, hydroquinone or corticosteroids, which are potentially toxic and can impact a person’s health. A quick search on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube turns up a number of posts, and sometimes entire business pages, selling or promoting the use of products that have been flagged by researchers at Minnesota’s Health Department in the US or by the Zero Mercury Working Group as containing high levels of mercury.

Mercury can have multiple negative health consequences, including neurological and cardiovascular damage.

CNN shared a sampling of these posts with each social media platform.

YouTube and TikTok said they did not violate their community guidelines, though TikTok did remove them when CNN followed up with further questions about US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations in place around mercury in cosmetics. A spokesperson for TikTok then said the company continues to work at better detecting content of this kind, including partnering with external industry experts to identify unsafe products, but other videos featuring products with mercury remain on the platform.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, did not comment on the posts CNN shared, but said they dedicate “substantial resources” to ensure that unsafe or illegal items are not sold on their platforms.

Little accountability

Benson, the Nigeria-based dermatologist, is particularly concerned by the number of homemade products she sees sold on these platforms.

“Skincare vendors…don’t need a store,” she said. They also “don’t need FDA approval or NAFDAC registration,” referring to Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. “They don’t need to even write the contents of the creams on the bottle. They just tell their followers that it’s a secret recipe.”

Benson explains that she has had patients come in saying they have been using “all-natural” bleaching creams but have the “tell-tale signs” of stretch marks associated with steroid use.

“Someone has been dishonest,” Benson said, and her concern is that it’s the sellers marketing them — and they seem to be accountable to no one. When her patients complain, the vendors block them, she said. Steroids can cause a range of side effects, including rashes and stretch marks, when used for prolonged periods and without medical supervision.

Another dermatologist, Dr. Adeline Kikam, who is based in Texas, voiced the same concerns as Benson.

“I see it all the time across my feed: people actually creating their own concoctions,” she told CNN, acknowledging that this is challenging to monitor and regulate. “When you have so many small companies doing it on a global level, and putting it directly on your social media, I think it’s even harder to control,” she said. “Platforms really need to hone in on the misleading claims about what some of these products [can] do to skin.”

Christine Wanjiku Mwangi from Kenya, who sells whitening products under the accounts Shix Beauty on YouTube and Shixglow Skincare on Instagram, originally bought beauty products for her acne over Facebook, which also had the effect of lightening her skin tone.

Happy with the results, she began her own skincare brand, and social media platforms have been crucial to her own business. “Ninety percent of my clients find me either through YouTube or Instagram, but mostly Instagram,” she said, adding that she plans to branch out to TikTok as well.

She told CNN she believes that her products are safe and effective and says she takes issue with online sellers who “are not legit,” who take advantage of their customers. “Those who either con people by posting fake before-and-after pics, fake reviews, etc. and they take people’s money and sell them products that do not work,” she explained.

Mwangi said she uses ingredients such as alpha arbutin, glutathione, kojic acid and niacinamide in her skin-lightening face, lip and body products, and she provides ingredient lists and instructions for use on her website as well as an FAQ page and contact information for any queries. She did not respond to CNN when asked if her products are certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, nor did she provide detailed information on how her ingredients are tested, but said she uses third-party quality-assurance agencies.

CNN contacted multiple vendors across social media platforms for insights into their markets, but only Mwangi provided comment.

Watch: This woman is trying to stop the skin whitening industry

‘Repeated failures in enforcement’

Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, which has tracked how harmful content has been circulated to young people on social media platforms, believes that many of the major tech companies are not adequately enforcing the policies they do have in place.

For example, when it comes to paid advertising, Meta and TikTok have additional rules. A spokesperson for TikTok explained that ads for skin whitening products are not allowed on TikTok in the US or UK, though treatments for fading dark spots are permitted.

Facebook’s ad policies explicitly ban content that “impl(ies) or attempt(s) to generate negative self-perception in order to promote diet, weight loss, or other health related products.” And though its policies do not mention lightening products, it limits ads for both supplements and cosmetic procedures to people 18 years or older.

As a test, the Tech Transparency Project submitted an ad on Facebook that aimed to intentionally violate Meta’s policies, scheduling it for a future time so that they could cancel it before it was served to any user. The ad for the fictional “Max White Lightening Gel” — targeted toward 13- to 17-year-old girls — showed a darker-skinned woman applying a cream with the tagline “Unlock your potential beauty!” Paul’s ad was approved in less than an hour.

“We’re seeing repeated failures in enforcement, and particularly in areas that are profit-making, like approval of harmful ads, or continuing to allow the sale of questionable or harmful content in Facebook shops,” she said.

Meta did not respond when CNN asked for comment on whether the ad broke its rules.

Experts have made it clear that policy enforcement is sorely needed, as well as more effective protections for young users, careful oversight over product listings and more transparency on how user-generated and paid content is moderated. They also believe there needs to be more liability when products sold on these platforms result in harm to the consumer.

Tech companies have largely maintained that they are not responsible for the goods sold through their platforms, but legislators in Europe and the US are looking to provide more protection and legal recourse for consumers.

Earlier this year, the European Union agreed on regulations under the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, which introduce a framework for regulating tech companies operating in Europe. The new rules will come into force in 2024.

In March, the California Court of Appeals ruled that Amazon must warn California consumers about products on their site that contain harmful toxins, such as mercury — the first ruling of its kind.  Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the US have looked to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which broadly protects tech platforms from lawsuits over user content. This would have significant implications if updated.

Google has also announced it will restrict ads for skin lightening products “that imply the superiority of one skin tone over another” beginning in June. Harvard researcher Raffoul said her team at STRIPED will begin a study over the summer to explore whether Google effectively implements this policy.

As for social media companies, they have made efforts in the past to regulate content deemed harmful to users, including hate speech, nudity and eating disorders. Raffoul now hopes they will be held accountable for the vast amount of unregulated content on skin lightening, beyond paid advertisements.

“Just because content is user-generated, it doesn’t mean that the responsibility of regulating their content should be on the users themselves.”

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