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Getting Rich From the Skin Lightening Trade

Beauty giants like Unilever and L'Oréal are cashing in on a global skin lightening and bleaching industry worth between $10 and $20 billion.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Maliha Rehman

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian fashion journalist Richard Akuson has occasionally been told he doesn't look "polished" enough for his profession. This, apparently, has nothing to do with Akuson's wardrobe or his considerable professional achievements. Instead, it is an observation made by his lighter-skin compatriots about his dark skin.

“When I was younger, I would often enter a room and quip that I was the darkest person there,” recalls Akuson. “I chose to poke fun at myself before others did. I was the ‘unpolished’ one, while people who were fairer were described as ‘fresh’. It is only now, as I’ve grown older, that I realise the importance of being comfortable in my own skin. I actually feel sympathetic towards people who lighten their skin because, by doing so, they reveal to the world just how insecure they are about their appearance.”

Privileging lighter skin over darker skin, often within the same race or culture, is at its root a form of prejudice known as colourism. However it is expressed — subtly, casually or blatantly — colourism is a phenomenon found across the globe. Beauty ideals based around colourism are also the primary driver for the big business of skin-whitening products, which are sold by multinational beauty conglomerates and dodgy black market traders alike.

“I’ve been advised by co-actors that I need to get injected with vitamin-E [products] which lighten the complexion and then I could possibly be ‘hero’ material,” laughs Pakistan-based actor and entertainer Ali Gul Pir. “While acting in sitcoms, I refrain from getting too much makeup done because it invariably means getting my face slathered with products that make me look unnaturally fair. I’m frequently told that I don’t look as good as my co-actors.”

In retaliation, Pir is currently working on a satirical music video. “The video will feature me as well as others like myself who have dark skin tones,” he says. But seeking out potential co-stars hasn’t been easy. “I recently asked an up-and-coming actor with dark skin to be part of the video and he immediately responded defensively that he wasn’t dark-skinned, and besides, he was getting injections to alter his complexion. People tend to get offended if I call them ‘dark’ — ‘wheatish’ is apparently a more flattering term.”

Billion-Dollar Business

According to a report from Global Industry Analysts the skin-lightening industry will mushroom into a $23 billion business by 2020. An AC Nielsen report from as far back as 2009 estimated that in India alone, more than $432 million worth of skin-whitening products were being consumed annually. In the intervening years, the popularity of such products has skyrocketed.

In the Indo-Pak subcontinent, a considerable chunk of this revenue is earned by Unilever’s best-selling “Fair & Lovely” product. The adverts for the cream tend to follow a staid format, where a dark-skinned girl is unable to get a job or get married until she uses the product and manages to lighten her skin.

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Similarly, Emami's “Fair and Handsome” cream proposes to work miracles for Indian men, with renowned film stars getting in on the action by starring in the brand’s advertisements. One particular ad shows popular Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan promoting the cream as an easy route to “becoming handsome”, with the brown-skinned actor’s facial colour being altered to a slight pink. According to a report published by India Times, Emami Ltd claimed to have had a 20 percent growth in sales in the first quarter of 2016.

Other brands follow suit, including Pond’s with “White Beauty”; Garnier with “White Complete”; L'Oréal with “White Perfect”; Neutrogena with “Fine Fairness”; and Dove. The quest for fair skin is a lucrative one for multinational giants. Most multinational brands, though, do profess their products are medically certified.

While L'Oréal Pakistan was unavailable for comment at the time of publication, Unilever Pakistan’s marketing director Raheel Pasha did offer a statement: “All Unilever creams like ‘Fair & Lovely’ [and] Pond’s are safe and efficacious, with no added mercury or any harmful ingredients. The safety and efficacy of the product also tested by various independent external bodies in several countries. This is endorsed by Skin Health Alliance UK and many renowned dermatologists.”

Adverts for the cream follow a staid format, where a dark-skinned girl is unable to get a job or get married until she uses the product and lightens her skin.

Other brands and products are developed locally or on a smaller scale. In 2012, Cameroonian-Nigerian pop star Dencia latched onto the whitening market with her product line “Whitenicious”, which quickly became popular in the region. The range was promoted for removing dark spots caused due to hyper-pigmentation, but a key sales driver included images of Dencia herself: dark-skinned before and ostensibly lightened afterwards. The singer duly came under fire for stigmatising dark skin.

Dencia, in her defence, explains, “The product line is expensive and a large majority of my clients can simply use it to lighten acne scars and dark spots. This is what it’s for, to enable people to look like the best version of themselves. There is probably just a minuscule 1 percent that chooses to and is able to afford to buy enough for their whole body.

“[Besides], it’s a personal choice to want to change your skin colour,” she adds unapologetically. “The more people bash me, the more my product sells. My main methods of advertising are, in fact, over Instagram and via the blogs [that are] trying to bring me down.”

Whitenicious cream by Dencia | Source: Instagram/@ whitenicious

But while voices are increasingly raised against colourism, fair skin continues to be considered a benchmark for beauty in many parts of the world as it is deeply ingrained in the collective mindset of some cultures. “Tanned skin is associated with being dirty or poor,” states Weiyi Szetoo, a Malaysian Chinese student, referring to a time when the poor would get tanned while working out in the fields, while the rich would remain indoors and have comparatively paler complexions.

Indian actress Nandita Das has often recounted how she would be slotted into roles of lower-caste characters because of her dark skin tone. Her experiences led her to become a spokesperson for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign against racism in the Indian media.

Beauty regimes that celebrate light skin are ancient and varied. In Pakistan and India, girls are told to “drink less tea and more milk” for whiter skin and a healthy brown tan is studiously avoided. An old African adage cautions that fair-skinned women are more expensive to marry. In Japan, an ancient proverb dictates that “white skin covers the seven flaws”, implying that even if a woman’s features are not attractive, her fair skin can make up for it. Japanese street photographer and fashion blogger Rei Shito recalls: “There was a time when Japanese geishas would paint their faces white as there was no electricity and they wanted to look bright. Now, this white colour has become a symbol of beauty.”

Australian blogger Alisa Kerr, who now lives in Tokyo and helms the online portal Tokyo Beauty Book, elaborates: "There is no stigma attached to skin whitening in Japan. The usage of bihaku (which means 'beautiful white') products is the norm, as common as using toothpaste."

According to Kerr, Shiseido, SK-II and Pola are all popular brands. “Most of these products are believed to be completely safe. Japanese women, in general, are very particular about quality skincare [and they] never sit in the sun or sun bake.”

The Dark Side to Lighter Skin

The affluent may manage to lighten their naturally dark skin with the help of injections, pills and expensive creams, but those less wealthy sometimes succumb to drastic measures or compromise safety.

In the early 2000s, Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel allegedly chose to change his skin colour dramatically by using a soap meant for whitening clothes. He went on to record a song referring to the “Cake Soap” and subsequently launched a skincare product range, which included brighteners. Despite being charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2011, Kartel's obsession with fair skin continued. In November 2016, the Jamaican star reported that he had developed a “Sweet Potato Skin Whitening Lotion” with the help of his fellow inmates.

Kenya-based Diana Opoti, founder of fashion consultancy Diana Opoti PR, explains how prevalent unregulated products are on the African continent. "I grew up in a small city and the population there was mostly dark skinned. Bleaches and well-known fairness creams sold well, as did over-the-counter creams that were created with home remedies or were a mixture of different creams. These creams weren't certified but people still used them. Recently I heard that women even use Jik bleach on their faces — it's a brand that's supposed to clean floors, drains and clothes. I find it sad that anyone would want to put their skin at risk to such an extent."

Recently I heard that women even use Jik bleach on their faces — it's a brand that's supposed to clean floors, drains and clothes.

Dr Pranav Pancholi, a skin dermatologist at Avane Dermatology Clinic in Kenya, has often encountered women who have become scarred and burnt for life due to excessive usage of substandard fairness creams. “These creams may contain hazardous quantities of steroids, mercury or hydroquinone. Limited dosage of these drugs can effectively lighten the skin but given that many of these black-market creams aren’t medically certified, they result in burnt skin.”

Masarrat Misbah, a beautician and founder of the Smile Again Foundation dedicated to aiding acid-burn victims, observed a similar reaction to fairness creams in Pakistan. “Most of the girls’ skins are completely black from burns… It turned out that they had been mixing different fairness creams and applying them to their faces in an effort to lighten the scars on their faces.

“The creams contain hard metals and steroids and over time, this results in the occurrence of acne, excessive hair growth, pigmentation and a thinning of the skin which can lead to skin cancer,” continues Misbah. “Also, mercury gets absorbed into the body and it can harm the kidneys, brain and reproductive system. It is ironic because girls often resort to using these creams because they feel that if they are fair, they will get married more easily. Once they do get married, it is because of these creams that they face problems in conceiving children.”

The never-ending quest for fair skin also has psychological repercussions which can be just as debilitating. Matrimonial advertisements in India and Pakistan openly specify that the prospective bride or groom should be "tall and fair". Newborn babies with dark skin are often massaged daily with herbal ubtan mixtures in order to make their skin fair. Yet the all-pervasive, societal pressure can seem inescapable.

Pakistani stylist Nabila, a proponent of natural-looking skin, observes that women almost always opt to buy the lighter shades of her “Zero Makeup” range. “They just don’t want to buy the shade that is suited to their skin. Their primary aim is to look fair-skinned, even unnaturally so.”

Dark Skin Beauty Movement

While fairer-skin beauty benchmarks continue to plague many markets, the call to end the stigmatisation of dark skin is growing stronger. The 2011 documentary “Dark Girls” by African-American filmmakers Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry has raised awareness and inspired many consumer activists around the world.

Indian actress Nandita Das is a spokesperson for the
"Dark is Beautiful" campaign | Source: Courtesy

In 2012, adverts in Senegal for “Khess Petch” (meaning “all white”) cream triggered public outrage. Street demonstrations took place with placards denouncing the product, and online petitions were filed to the country’s Ministry of Health demanding that the campaign depicting “before” and “after” images of a dark-skinned woman be prohibited.

Nivea too was heavily criticised on social media when, earlier this year, it released an ad for its “Fairness Body Lotion” in Nigeria, which featured fashion entrepreneur Omowunmi Akinnifesi declaring that her “fairer skin” made her look “younger”. Also this year, the brand’s “White Is Purity” campaign released in the Middle East was promptly pulled after being declared racist.

“Within certain communities, changing the skin colour is now frowned upon and even if women do it, they do it secretively,” observes Opoti. “The natural hair movement in Africa has helped encourage women to feel proud of their natural skin colour.”

But attitudes toward ancient beauty standards that have been exacerbated by centuries of colonialism and a global fashion and beauty industry perpetuating Eurocentric beauty ideals are slow to change. It will take many more campaigns and movements for the obsession around lighter skin to dim.

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