How Multinational Brands Are Driving India’s Dangerous Skin Whitening Obsession

Elle magazine caused a furore in 2010 when supporters of Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rain accused it of lightening her skin on a cover. Skin whitening is a major issue in India. Ilona Ignatova/Shutterstock.com

  • “I am much more fair now than I was before,” Monica Singh, a housemaid in India’s capital, New Delhi, says with conviction.

Yet there is no visible difference from the photograph of her, a decade younger, that she carries around in her purse. If anything, her face looks more blemished, with darker patches, blotchy eruptions and dry wrinkles that make her look at least a decade older than her 35 years.

Nevertheless, she soldiers on with unshaken faith in her tube of Fair & Lovely for an elusive creams-and-peaches complexion that skin whitening brands have been promising her – and millions of other Indian women – for years now.

“I want to be fair because everyone likes fair people and looks down on dark-skinned people,” Singh says.

Singh’s fair fetish is a result of long years of negative social stereotyping and conditioning because, believe it or not, India, a multibillion-dollar emerging economy, has its evil twin still stuck in a time warp.

The country’s obsession with fairness is complicated as it is intertwined with its social fabric. Hindu mythologies are teeming with fair-skinned gods and dark-skinned devils and demons; the predominantly fair Brahmins are at the top of its rigid caste system while comparatively darker Dalits are right at the bottom and are (still) considered impure and untouchables. A long spell under pale-skinned and light-haired British rulers had cemented fairness as a symbol of power, superiority and success in the Indian society.

Unsurprisingly, India’s first fairness cream, Fair & Lovely, launched in 1978 had immediately become a national obsession. The brand, owned by a Unilever subsidiary, continues to be a market leader and one of the company’s most important local products to date. The firm reportedly spends up to $5 million per year on television advertising alone for the cream.  

“Film and ad companies are cashing on the dark skin complex that already exists all across the country,” says actor Nandita Das, who has taken a stance against this craze for fairness. She supports the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, which was launched in 2009 and challenges the notion that success and beauty are dependent upon skin color. Das, a rarity in India’s commercial film industry, Bollywood, where most heroines boast of pale complexions, consistently refuses to lighten her skin with makeup during her shoots.

“The media is creating a furor about the attractiveness of white/fair skin, luring the dark-skinned individual into buying a product that will put them in the ‘attractive’ slot.”

And it’s working.

The Indian skin whitening industry is worth almost $180 million and is growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent annually. Aside from creams, it also churns out fairness soaps, deodorants, shower gels, sunscreens. Other fairness products include washes and creams to whiten various private parts of the body, including the vagina.

Indian men, after surreptitiously using their wives’, mothers’ or sisters’ Fair & Lovely for years, now also have their own range of fairness products to choose from. In fact, the men’s fairness products market is estimated to to be worth nearly $40 million and is growing at a rate of 25 percent.

“Unfortunately we live in a market economy and in a system engineered to fulfill human needs at various levels. So if there is a hidden need for fairness among people in the market, then who are we to judge whether the market is right or wrong?” says Souvik Misra, co-founder of SOS Ideas, a Kolkata-based advertising agency.

“Apart from the elite 5 percent in our country, the rest of the population thinks very differently and brands are catering to that thinking.”

For a period, ads portraying dark people in a negative light took over Indian television screens, repeatedly telling Indians the way to sustain success in life and career was dependent not on their talent, but on their skin color. Although such ads have been stemmed now, the aggressive marketing campaigns, have already dug in deep into the Indian psyche.

In 2010, a year into the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, Vaseline, another Unilever brand that markets fairness products, released a survey that revealed “fair, glowing, and spotless skin” was the topmost desire of the Indian woman. Eight out of 10 women polled by the company believed having fair skin provided them with a head-start in Indian society.

The years from 2009 until now saw a voracious anti-fairness campaign by civil society groups that led advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Council of India, to rein in fairness advertising that used negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin color. But while that changed the nature of fairness ads, the demand for fairness products continues growing among consumers.

A Morgan Stanley report last year on consumer trends revealed that nearly half of Indian consumers were still looking for skin creams to lighten their skin.

“We bring up girls to believe how they look is more important than who they are,” says Kavitha Emmanuel, the founder-director of Women of Worth, the Chennai-based NGO behind the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign. “Why can’t brands come up with products for all skin shades? Or promote healthy, glowing skin instead of fairness?”

Brands won’t do that of course. Healthy skin won’t sell their products in a fairness-obsessed market. In fact, as consumer companies race against each other to introduce fairness products to lure the average Indian (especially women), a public health issue is unfolding quietly, as fairness creams are being introduced in the market laden with harmful chemicals, including topical steroids that should ideally come along with a doctor’s prescription.

In a rare crackdown earlier in September, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration – acting on the complaint of the association of Indian dermatologists, or IADVL – removed a particular brand of fairness creams from sale in the state. The doctors had complained to the federal drug controller the fairness products – UB Fair for men and No Scars cream for women by the Chandigarh-based Torque Pharma – were promoted as cosmetic creams but, in fact, contained potentially harmful steroids and should have been sold as prescription drugs.

The creams, when tested, were  found to contain potent steroids including mometasone along with skin bleaching agents, whose long term use without medical supervision can cause issues including unwanted hair growth, pustular lesions, facial rashes, and fixed redness. Other topical steroids can cause skin thinning, rashes, excess facial hair growth if used for a long period.

“Some advertised creams are utterly useless and are cheating consumers; some of them contain potent steroids and other harmful chemicals; some creams contain steroids but these are not listed among the ingredients,” says Koushik Lahiri, a Kolkata-based dermatologist and chairperson of the Task Force Against Topical Steroid Abuse.

“This is illegal and calls for criminal lawsuits.”

In 2011, a study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology revealed that 60 percent of patients who had skin problems on their face were using self-prescribed steroid-based creams. The study named the condition as “topical steroid-dependent face.”

“This is a silent epidemic of astronomical magnitude,” warns Lahiri, who also spearheads a Facebook campaign, “No Steroids on Face.”

Kusum Singh Chauhan, a 35-year-old beautician from New Delhi, had a steroid moment on her face just before her wedding.

“The skin on the lower part of my face flaked off and I had a burning sensation for days when I had used a fairness cream in the run up to my wedding,” she says. “I have stayed away from them ever since. I don’t recommend them to my clients although many beauticians do.”

Apart from topical steroids, most fairness products also contain other harmful chemicals like mercury. Last year, a study carried out by New Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment found large amounts of mercury, lead, nickel and chromium in these creams, many of which were endorsed by some of India’s top actors.

The CSE’s pollution monitoring lab PML, found mercury in 44 percent of the fairness creams it tested.
“Mercury is not supposed to be present in cosmetic products. Their mere presence in these products is completely illegal and unlawful,” CSE director general Sunita Narain said at the time.

Inorganic mercury in fairness creams can cause kidney damage, rashes, skin discoloration and scarring. It can also cause anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.

Much of the problem seems to be the fact that loopholes in the law allow brands to acquire cosmetic licenses for products that should actually be classified as drugs. If one follows the World Health Organization’s definition of a drug which is “any substance or product that is used or intended to be used to modify or explore physiological systems or pathological states for the benefit of the recipient,” then Indian fairness products should really be classified as prescription drugs rather than cosmetic products. But drug licenses are harder to procure.

In a paper in the Indian Journal of Clinical Practice, authors Monika Agarwal and Vandana Roy say skin lightening is “not only a psychological and social problem, but also a public health issue.” They argue that if fairness creams are promising to modify physiological actions in the body – by changing dark skin to fair – then they should be brought under the category of a drug.

In recent times, owing to the constant activism of Lahiri and his colleagues, the federal drug controller issued notices to state drug controllers conveying the concerns expressed by the dermatologists’ association, asking them to “keep a vigil and take appropriate action” against erring brands. In Hyderabad and Maharashtra, the drug controller has registered more than 100 cases against companies selling fairness products containing harmful chemicals.

While these are positive developments in an otherwise bleak situation, India needs to do more to contain this public health issue that might become an emergency if this abuse is allowed to continue unregulated. Lawmakers need to take action. Civil society activists and dermatologists need to come together to keep up the pressure on the government and the brands.

But, perhaps most importantly, people need to learn to be happy in their own skin.