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Do skin-lightening creams work? gal-dem tried one out

29 Mar 2016

When gal-dem asked me if might be interested in trying out a skin-lightening cream to see if they worked, I was extremely reluctant. It is not something that I have ever considered doing, and I felt as though it might imply that I have an issue with my skin tone. However, after coming to the conclusion that this is purely an experiment and has nothing to do with my personal beliefs, I decided to go for it. I live in Bristol, and I knew I could purchase them from my local African-Caribbean hair and beauty store.

As I approached the skincare aisle in my local hair shop, I found it intriguing that black soap was right next to the skin-lightening products. I wondered whether this was a tactical decision. Black soap is extremely popular among the black community and is known to be very good for your skin, making it softer and healthier. Would people be encouraged to buy skin-lightening products because they’re in the same section as the black soap?

I was taken aback by the variety of soaps, creams and serums that one could purchase in order to “remove blemishes” and “brighten your skin”. There were so many different brands to choose from too: Fair & Lovely, White Express and Fair and White to name a few. With about four different products in my hand I tried to decide what to purchase. Would the soap be better than the cream? Which one would produce the quickest results? Which brand is better? It was all quite confusing.

The shopkeeper must have sensed that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing because, after staring blankly at the different labels for five minutes, he asked if I needed any help, and for what purpose I needed a product. I noticed that I felt a bit awkward when I said it was for skin-lightening. I wanted to explain that I had no issue with my skin tone and it was just an experiment. Perhaps I assumed that he would judge me.

Of course he did nothing of the sort, and talked me through the different products. It turns out that “the only reason that there are different forms such as soap and serums is so that these brands can sell it as one big package”. It’s just another way to get more money from consumers. Buy the whole Fair and White range, shower with the soap, moisturise with the cream, and your skin would be glowing.

A lot of the instructions on the creams encouraged up to six weeks’ usage, which I was not ready to commit to. The shopkeeper suggested a small White Express tube that promised to show results in 10 days. Perfect. I asked him if many people came in and bought these products, and whether he believed that the products actually work. “They’re very popular and we always get good customer feedback. I don’t know if it works but people will always come back and buy more, so it must be having the effect that they want it to have.” I guess all those people can’t be wrong.

I was quite shocked to realise that the cream did not come with any instructions. It was just a box and a tube. On the side of the box, it lists the ingredients and mentions that the cream “is active against acute dermatitis: eczema, psoriasis…” and a few other skin conditions. It goes on to claim that the cream “stimulates the cutaneous system, bringing the skin to its normal physiological condition”.

After a quick Google search, I came to the conclusion that “cutaneous system” just meant skin. In short, the cream is meant to make your skin healthier and help treat the skin conditions mentioned. There’s absolutely no mention of skin whitening, lightening or brightening. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the name of the product, you’d be forgiven for thinking from the description that it was a tube of E45.

However, I then read some reviews for this particular cream on Amazon:

“This product didn’t work for me. It bleached my face and left me with patches.”

This person rated the product 1 out of 5 stars. On the one hand, if the cream has “bleached” this customer’s face, I guess this is proof that it is successful in lightening your skin. However, patchiness? That didn’t sound good at all. Did this customer have a particularly bad reaction?

“The cream is good though slow-acting but after six weeks you look spot free.”

I had already decided I would not be spending a whole six weeks applying this cream every day when it says “results in 10 days” on the box. Then again, I didn’t know if I ever believed that this cream would lighten my skin in such a short amount of time, and the customer quoted above rated White Express 5 out of 5. They hadn’t mentioned bleached skin, but must have be really happy that their blemishes were removed, despite it taking four and a half weeks longer than expected.

“…I am using it in conjunction with a skin-brightening soap from another brand so it seems to be working but I think the other branded soap is doing most of the work…”

What intrigued me about the reviews was that each customer seemed to be using the cream for a different purpose. This customer clearly wanted to “brighten” their skin and is combining the 10-day tube with other lotions and soaps in order to achieve this – and it’s working. However, other customers want to get rid of particular blemishes and spots. It was hard to measure the success of the cream through the reviews when each person had a different view on what success looked like.

I decided to volunteer my right kneecap for the experiment, because my knees are slightly darker than the rest of my legs, so it may be easier for me to notice it getting lighter. Also, if there is quite an extreme change by the end of the 10 days, I can deal with a bleached/patchy knee slightly better than, say, a bleached forehead.

By the end of this experiment, you will all be very well acquainted with my knees. Enjoy.

Day 1

day 1 knee

day 1 cream

The cream smells okay and feels like any other moisturising cream. A little amount goes a long way, so it took quite a while for me to fully rub the cream in.

Whenever I tell someone that I am doing this experiment, they are incredibly concerned and confused. I’ve been bombarded with questions. What if it drastically changes my skin colour? Isn’t it really dangerous? What is the point? Is it worth it? Am I crazy? It has made me feel quite defensive. In short, I feel as though a lot of people have little or no knowledge about these products, but the people who use them have very strong reasons as to why they do. There needs to be more information and more open discussion about skin-lightening and its effects.

I want to help contribute to this discussion, and what better way to do so than trying the product myself? Thus, I hope to provide an unbiased view on the skin-lightening process.

Day 5


There has been no change as of yet. I have become increasingly paranoid about using the cream with my bare hands. After applying it to my knee, I now have a three-minute ritual using antibacterial hand wash to ensure that no cream residue remains. I know I am overreacting – the cream feels just like any other body lotion product and it does not include any harmful ingredients. However, I still feel really cautious after using it, as if it will bleach my hands.

Day 10

It has been 10 days and contrary to what it says on the White Express box, I can’t see any change in my right knee. It does not look any “brighter” than before, or lighter than the other knee. Like one of the Amazon customers said, maybe there would be a bigger change after a longer period of time.

The past 10 days have given me some time to reflect on skin-lightening. I used to think that people only used these products because they didn’t like how dark their skin was and, as a young black woman, this has always upset me.

Darker skin has historically been seen as less desirable, so the idea that women are so affected by this that they will actually lighten their skin just shows how harmful society’s beauty standards can be. However, after reading reviews and looking into White Express in more detail online, these creams seem to have various uses.

It is useful for people who have skin conditions and want to remove blemishes and soften their skin and, if it works for them, that’s great.

Get involved with gal-dem’s skin lightening series. Comment, tweet us at @galdemzine using the #skinlighteningseries, or email if you would like to share your experience.