From light-skinned deities depicted in ancient religious tableaux, pearl-swallowing practices in China, turmeric ceremonies in India to clay application in Africa, history has been coloured by our questionable aversion to the darker shades. Complexion has assumed psychological, economic and political currency with continued growth in the desire for skin lighteners sweeping the boundaries of country, race, cultural and socioeconomic status. This review explores our early associations with the symbolism of colour through religion, the ideals of complexion across cultures and time, the motivations behind the use of skin lightening practices, and the use of colour within political and economic agendas. Skin-lightening agents with regard to content, adverse effect profile and regulation are discussed and safe skin care practices in assisting with an individual’s adoption of a more tolerable spectrum of shades are alluded to.
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