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Gloriel and the issue of skin lightening

3 November 2007 at 06:42 | 4651 views

By Daniel Tseghay.

What should we make of skin whitening: the deliberate attempt to make one’s skin fairer? How much of this practice is fueled by racism, and problems of self-image? How much of it is completely innocent - an innocuous preference for lighter skin? For many, these questions have not crossed their minds enough to bring an answer. Same goes for me, to tell the truth. However, new award-winning technology may startle us into considered thought of this problem.

Pratik Lodha and Eman Ahmed-Muhsin, two graduate students at Carleton University,Canada, developed a skin-lightening cream called Gloriel. The product was a finalist in the 2007 Student Technology Venture Challenge, and won a $5,000 prize. Previous lightening products essentially wiped away pigment using harmful chemicals that often had very nasty side-effects. Not Gloriel. As written in the CBC, “Gloriel uses a reversible gene-silencing method called RNA interference to reduce the production of skin pigments called melanin.” This is a much safer way. It’s a bit like keeping a persistent house painter a few meters from your home - rather than scraping the paint off afterwards, damaging your walls.

Efficient and safe, definitely. But is it ethical? And right? The creators of Gloriel have insisted it is. They point out that Gloriel is not only capable of lightening skin, but of also darkening it. They also avoid responsibility, in the event that Gloriel is objectionable, by saying that “The market exists and we’re not going to increase or decrease that market. We’re just offering a safer and more effective method.”

These points are interesting and good. There’s no way to know which option a creator prefers when the product has multiple, and sometimes opposite, purposes. And because there’s no way to know this, we should usually be rest assured neither option is being forced on its customers. So, I guess, Gloriel doesn’t make it’s buyers lighten their skin. And even if the creators preferred their products to be used a skin-lightener, we may have to take the responsibility and blame off their shoulders. They are merely providing a product people seem to want. Nothing more and nothing less.

But sadly it’s not that simple. The reasons behind darkening one’s skin and lightening it are very different. People darken themselves because tanned skin, if even just a little, represents health and vitality. But lightened skin represents something else. The belief that light-skinned people are in many ways superior to their darker counterparts still fills many of us.

It may be a remnant of the imperial age, when Europeans colonized Africans, South Americans, and Asians, convincing them of the idea that colonialism was good because only whites can effectively govern darker people. Even with post-colonialism, the belief that the most obvious characteristic of our previous governors, light skin, is preferable, still lingers like a bad smell. So even though Gloriel can be used to both lighten and darken skin, human history suggests one will be preferred. Wrongly, in my opinion.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest Gloriel and other similar products should be banned. We should rather take it as a source of discussion. Perhaps with enough debate we can acknowledge the subtle prejudice that remains, and purge ourselves of it.