Holland & Barrett under pressure to remove skin-whitening product from its shelves

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The skin whitening cream advertised on the Holland & Barrett website

Holland & Barrett has come under fire from various groups over its sale of a cream designed to make skin lighter. The Dr Organic Royal Jelly Skin Body Whitening Cream is being sold by the nationwide chain online and in a number of its stores for £9.99 with the following product description: ‘This remarkable bioactive skin whitening cream […] helps inhibit melanin production and gently lightens and tones the skins appearance.’

Holland & Barrett has refused to say whether it would be removing the product from its online and in-store collection but released a statement saying that the skin-whitening cream does not contain “harsh bleaching agents” and “has proven skin-whitening attributes especially for use on age spots liver spots, freckles, sun-damaged skin, scars, blemishes, dark elbows and knees as well as general skin brightening”.

Holland & Barrett is either ignorant or blind to the issue at hand here. What stands out in this statement is the word ‘especially’ – i.e. not exclusively. The problem with having any form of skin-whitening cream so readily available on the market and being sold by a long-established, trusted and well-known company like Holland & Barrett is that it undoubtedly lends itself to abuse. Sure there are some people who will buy the product because their skin has darkened from over-exposure to the sun or scars. However, there are many people belonging to Britain’s black, Asian and mixed-race communities who will buy the product simply because they cannot see the beauty of their natural skin colour – crucially, this could also include young teenagers and children since the cream is so easily accessible. As for its recommended use for ‘dark elbows and knees,’ – what is wrong with having dark patches of skin where these occur naturally?

Campaigners have rightly criticised Holland & Barrett’s sale of the product by placing it within the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism and white skin having been falsely marketed as more desirable than darker skin for centuries.

“In 1930s America, if your skin was lighter than a brown bag you could go through the front door and if it wasn't you had to go round the back,' he said. 'We have moved on since then. […] It's a shock to us that anybody, particularly Holland & Barrett, would make anything like this available,” said Jabeer Bhutt, the deputy chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, who has charged Holland & Barrett of being “hugely irresponsible” by selling the product. “Our worry here is a more wide-ranging one about what it means to be beautiful and what it means not to be beautiful,” added Mr Bhutt, who has asked the store to remove the cream from its range of products.

Debbie Weekes-Bernard, of the Runnymede Trust equality think-tank, is more sceptical about Holland & Barrett’s intentions to sell the cream saying that the company, “clearly knows its target demographic and why they'll buy it.” She continued, “Something marketed as a skin-whitening cream is not going to attract a raft of blonde women, so to say it’s for age spots doesn’t work. It’s an insult to generations of work done to encourage darker-skinned people to have pride in their skin.”