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Beauty Giants Bow to Pressure on Skin Lightening Lotions. Is it Enough?

Large conglomerates have come under fire for showing support for the racial justice movement while manufacturing and distributing skin-whitening lotions. Some are taking action, but critics question whether it’s enough.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Tamison O'Connor

LONDON, United Kingdom — Three weeks ago, when Black Lives Matter protests prompted numerous corporations and startups to take a public stand against racism, Unilever was no exception.

“We have a responsibility for racial justice,” it said on Instagram, announcing donations to groups working to advance racial equality by its brands, including SheaMoisture, Suave and Axe. Missing from the list was Fair & Lovely, a Unilever brand sold in India that owes its popularity to the whitening and skin-lightening benefits of its creams and lotions.

The omission was not lost on the company’s followers.

“You guys sell ‘Fair and Lovely,’ so much for caring about racism when companies like you are the cause of it!” wrote one commenter on the post. Another wrote: “All this while you make millions from whitening cream? Double standards to say the least #BoycottUnilever.”


On June 25, Hindustan Unilever, the consumer goods giant's Indian subsidiary, said it would drop the "Fair" from Fair & Lovely. That follows Johnson & Johnson, which last week said it would stop selling its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Clear Fairness lines, which are advertised as "dark-spot reducers" and distributed in Asia and the Middle East and India, respectively. L'Oréal Group, too, said it would remove mentions of "whitening," "fairness," and "lightening" from its products.

The multi-billion dollar skin-lightening beauty industry has faced criticism for decades, with activists targeting companies that promote fairer skin as more desirable in order to sell whitening products. Critics point to the long-term negative health effects of using skin-lightening products, and say that marketing helps entrench colourism in communities where darker-skinned individuals can face discrimination.

They are upholding one beauty standard, which is white. Only white is good.

The attacks have done little to curb the popularity of these products in their core markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East; global consumption has risen 30 percent since 2013, according to Euromonitor International. Though usage has fallen in parts of Africa, it is growing fast in Asia; consumption in India and Pakistan has almost doubled over the past seven years, while about 16 percent of global consumption is now in mainland China.

But the recent international protests against racism, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have reinvigorated the debate. Large companies like Unilever and L’Oréal that have made public showings of opposing racism are struggling to explain to consumers why they simultaneously manufacture products viewed by many as reinforcing discrimination.

Even though the target markets for these products are half a world away from the biggest protests, in the social media age, that has made little difference.

“This moment has been pretty powerful. And that is one of the reasons we decided to seize this moment and actually talk about some of these broader offshoots and issues,” said Marvi Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant to the US who helped start a petition to halt Fair & Lovely production. “A lot of brands have been called out for their performative allyship, and they've acted on it. This is … a unique moment where I think people are being called on and being held accountable.”

Pressure Campaign


The petition, created by Ahmed and two friends, Hira Hashmi and Anum Chandani, garnered over 13,400 signatures in two weeks. The trio, who grew up in Karachi before moving to the US to complete grad school, saw the name change as a "significant move in the right direction."

“Unilever still has a lot to prove,” said Ahmed. “But...we are very happy to see that future generations will not have to grow up with the narrative that ‘fair’ is equal to ‘lovely.’”

To sell their goods, brands often deploy narratives that promote fairer skin tones as preferable to darker skin tones in marketing campaigns. Past advertising campaigns for Fair & Lovely and its competitors have often depicted women who are unsuccessful — perhaps unable to land a job or unlucky in love — until they use the brand’s skin-lightening products.

Fair and lovely changing their name? To me, that is just publicity.

Sanjiv Mehta, chairman at Hindustan Unilever, said in a statement the company was already moving towards "more holistic and inclusive" messaging.

“We are making our skin-care portfolio more inclusive and want to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty,” he said. The company has not commented on the fate of its Pond’s “Whitening Solution” line.

The conglomerates aren't the only players in this space, however. Consumers across Africa, Asia and the Middle East in search of skin lightening serums or bleaching creams can turn to local and independent brands, or even the black market, where products are often unregulated and dangerous. The products can be found in stores catering to the South Asian diaspora in the West as well, Hashmi said.

“These issues run further than geography,” she said.

Slow Progress


Anti-colourism activists across the world have long worked to end the stigma against darker-skinned men and women, who often face discrimination throughout society, including from within their own racial communities. In 2002, Malaysian women's groups called for stricter regulation on advertising by these companies. In 2009, Indian non-governmental organisation Women of Worth launched its Dark Is Beautiful campaign, which still runs workshops and advocacy initiatives and training programmes in schools and workplaces to fight against colourism and bias today and has been backed by celebrities like Bollywood actor Nandita Das.

BeautyWell Project, a Minnesota-based non profit working to end skin-lightening practices, focuses on changing government policy to ensure tight regulation prevents toxic products; educating communities on the harmful effects of skin-whitening lotions; and changing the larger narrative surrounding beauty ideals. Last year, it successfully lobbied Amazon to pull toxic skin lightening creams from its site.

Innanoshe Richard Akuson, a Nigerian lawyer and former fashion journalist, grew up in Akwanga, later moving to Lagos for work. His lighter-skinned peers would casually comment on his dark complexion.

"I worked as a fashion editor and I remember people were telling me 'Oh if you only used that lotion it would bring out your real complexion,'" he said. "This idea of light skinned superiority has been advanced, in some ways, through the mass media."

Yet attitudes towards skin bleaching in Nigeria are mixed. Akuson recalled the backlash Blac Chyna faced when she went to the country to promote her skin bleaching beauty product. He also noted a growing stigma around “botched” jobs, which can be common given the toxic ingredients present in many lotions.

In Africa, some governments have started taking action. Countries including Rwanda and Ghana have cracked down on the dangerous industry, where many products sold contain toxic chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury.

The next generation of consumers is savvy and fed up. They're not going to tolerate the racial exclusion that has been so many corporations for decades.

BeautyWell Project Founder Amira Adawe, who grew up in Somalia before moving to the US, said the big companies that manufacture and distribute these products are only helping to institutionalise antiquated and warped beauty ideals.

“They are upholding one beauty standard, which is white. Only white is good,” she said. “They need to stop this colourism by [not] selling these products.”

Adawe said it took a year, and a petition with 23,000 signatories, to get Amazon to remove the toxic products. But the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked wider conversations around race, equality and inclusivity, has spotlighted corporate activism attempts and put them to the test. In a world driven by social media, it’s becoming impossible for brands to ignore popular sentiment. It’s not enough to release a statement — they have to practice what they preach.

“The next generation of consumers is savvy and fed up,” said Dominique Apollon, vice president of research at nonprofit racial justice organisation Race Forward. “The current uprisings suggest they’re not going to tolerate the racial exclusion that has been normalised and swept under the rug — whether intentionally or not — by so many corporations for decades.”

Johnson & Johnson pointed to current events as the stimulus for the decision to kill the controversial product lines.

“Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Dark Spot Reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” the company said in a statement. “This was never our intention — healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

For Johnson & Johnson, the goodwill generated by axing skin-whitening product lines is worth the lost sales — a drop in the ocean for the $82 billion conglomerate. A company representative told BoF the now discontinued skin-whitening lines accounted for a “very small part” of its global skin-care portfolio, and represented less than 1 percent of 2019 global beauty sales, which hit $4 billion in 2019.

Whether Unilever’s Fair & Lovely rebrand will be enough to satisfy vocal critics remains to be seen. On social media, the company drew criticism for not scrapping the product altogether, with commenters branding the move a marketing gimmick.

“You’re not getting rid of the bleaching products, you’re just changing their names, because you’d still like to capitalise on the underlying colourism,” one Twitter commenter said. “You don’t get a cookie for that.”

Adawe echoed the sentiment.

“The only company that I’m seeing taking active action to address colourism is Johnson & Johnson. They’re completely stopping the sales of skin-lightening [lotions],” she said. “Fair and lovely changing their name? That does not do anything, that does not change the fact that they are continuing to sell that. To me, that is just publicity.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated on June 29, 2020 with the news that L’Oréal Group said it would remove mentions of “whitening,” “fairness,” and “lightening” from its products.


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