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

Last year, Representative Ilhan Omar passed an amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives to increase funding for the CDC to study the health impacts of mercury exposure from commercial skin-lightening products. She plans to reintroduce this amendment again to Congress and hopes to pass it into law soon. Here, she explains why this issue is so deeply personal.

For decades, the beauty industry has sold the narrative that lighter skin is more beautiful. Movies, television, print magazines, and nearly every other medium convey the subliminal message that your value is tied to your skin-tone. We’ve seen the media lighten and retouch images of celebrities of color, from Beyoncé and Priyanka Chopra to Kerry Washington and 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. 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 can have lasting and damaging health effects.

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 $8.3 billion industry. Many of our minority communities, especially our African and Asian communities, have suffered the repercussions of these skin-lightening 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 that create these products aren’t even aware of the side effects and permanent health issues that can occur. The amendment I introduced in July 2020 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 only about the physical harm, there’s psychological damage 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 skin is better, the damage is long-lasting.

It’s 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 and that has 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 honors them.

During Black History Month and all year-round, I hope we can celebrate every shade of Black, and work to root out the racism embedded within the beauty industry. We must keep raising awareness of these issues. That means talking about skin-lightening products and colorism with loved ones, sharing your experiences, and asking your representatives to support legislative efforts to fight this industry—and we must continue to speak out until we implement meaningful change.