SKIN-whitening cosmetics are a multi-billion dollar industry pushing the idea that beauty equates with white skin and that lightening dark skin is both achievable and preferable.
The cosmetics industry has traditionally relied on convincing people that they are incomplete without a particular product. Yet, unlike make-up or fake tan, skin-whitening creams base beauty on a racial hierarchy, fuelling intolerance and causing serious social harm.
In a country such as India, the dominance of fair skin has both a colonial and a caste legacy and the global narrative is that those at the top of society have fair skin. With issues such as employment and relationships often resting on skin tone, people invest in skin-whitening creams in the hope of a better existence. Capitalising on this inequality, hundreds of products are peddled by corporations, among them armpit whitener, genital whitener and fairness baby oil.
In countries such as India and Thailand it is difficult to find beauty products that do not claim to have lightening or whitening properties, and a recently launched celebrity backed product in Nigeria sold out within 24 hours. Many global corporations are involved in this market, such as Unilever, which sells Fair and Lovely, Pond’s White Beauty and the Vaseline and Dove whitening ranges.
Challenging this climate of discrimination is Women of Worth, an Indian non-governmental organisation (NGO) called that has founded the Dark is Beautiful campaign. The campaign’s director, Kavitha Emmanuel, says the project resulted from work with children and young people. “The issue of skin colour kept coming up. We saw how it makes young people — especially young girls — feel as if they’re not good enough.
“Skin colour bias affects people psychologically. It affects how a child performs in school because their confidence level goes down: they feel they are not good enough. And when it comes to marriage, we again find skin colour plays such a vital role. We thought, ‘Why are we keeping quiet about this? We should talk about this and see how people respond.’”
In January, Emmanuel delivered a petition of 30,000 signatures to cosmetics company Emami, calling on them to withdraw a particularly discriminatory advert for Fair and Handsome. She recalls the words of Emami’s managing director: “There is a need in our society for fairness creams, so we are meeting that need.” He refused to withdraw the ad. Undeterred, Dark is Beautiful is lobbying the Advertising Council of India to legislate against adverts that discriminate against dark skin.
Skin colour, along with hair and eye colour, is genetically determined by the amount of melanin found in the top layers of skin. Its varied presence — which accounts for different skin colours — is linked to a population’s historic levels of sun exposure. Yet skin-whitening products promising to be anti-melanin are now on sale, with worrying consequences. Dr Bav Shergill, consultant dermatologist and trustee of the British Skin Foundation, explains: “Melanin is produced by melanocytes to protect the DNA of our skin from sun damage. Excessively reducing this concentration of melanin may increase the risk of skin cancers.”
Other creams have been found to contain dangerous chemicals, such as hydroquinone and mercury. The British Skin Foundation advises that hydroquinone can cause intense irritation and uneven bleaching of the skin, and mercury can cause increased pigmentation and severe itchy rashes. Both these chemicals are banned in the EU though not elsewhere, and batches of under-the-counter creams are routinely confiscated by the UK authorities.
This does not mean that corporations such as Unilever are fulfilling a public health role. Pots of creams cannot turn billions of people white; nor is it responsible for pharmaceutical companies to pretend to offer the means to carry out such an appalling project. Corporations are capitalising on racial inequality and deepening a sense of self-hate in people while peddling products that are either ineffectual or dangerous.
Dove’s “real women” campaign — which aimed to challenge beauty stereotypes — increased sales by 700 per cent, yet skin colour has yet to be treated in the same fashion. For campaigners like Emmanuel, skin whitening is a public health crisis — both physical and emotional — fuelled by corporations making huge profits.
“I would say we need to change attitudes, and it’s going to take years to do that,” says Emmanuel. “That is why our campaign has a celebratory attitude: in a country with so many different shades, we should celebrate every single shade.” It’s a message that flies in the face of corporations making billions from selling the idea that only white is beautiful.