Skin whitening products have been around for years: Leave the West and travel around the Pacific Rim, and the chances are high a local drugstore or supermarket has an aisle devoted to these products.
At a minimum, these products help perpetuate and amplify Western ideals of beauty – and at worst, detractors say they can cause health problems. “The need to appear ‘white’ can be destructive, both mentally and physically,” wrote one journalist several years ago.
The reckoning over race relations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, which for now are echoing far beyond the U.S., has nudged some of the world’s leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) and personal care companies to roll back the marketing of skin whitening products.
L’Oréal, for example, announced last week that it would remove terms such as “whitening,” “fairness” and “lightening” from its skin care products. The company’s Garnier line, one of many products that have advertised in South Asia that they could lighten one’s skin complexion, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. One Bollywood actress has come under intense criticism for her endorsement of Garnier products after she tweeted a message in support of the George Floyd protests. Many other celebrities in India have been called out as well for saying they stand with Black Americans yet have cashed in from endorsing skin whitening products.
Also in India, Unilever revealed that it would rebrand its “Fair & Lovely” skin care line, another product that had scored paid endorsements of Bollywood celebrities over the years. The problem, however, was the decision to adopt a more “inclusive” name, “Glow & Lovely,” which detractors say doesn’t change the problem: ongoing discrimination against darker skinned citizens, often referred to as colorism.
"I do think it is a symbolic message and a step in the right direction. However, a lot of us here feel like that's not entirely addressing the social stigma that comes with these creams because essentially you're still selling a fairness cream brand, just packaging it as not Fair & Lovely, but whatever it is they come up with,” Mumba-based documentary filmmaker Richa Sanwal told Public Radio International’s The World. “So essentially we're still selling that same dream, just packaging it differently.”
The outcry against skin whitening products is nothing new. Several years ago, Procter & Gamble financially backed a documentary, Imagine a Future, which among its many messages imparted that all skin tones is beautiful. At least one blogger, however, pointed out that the company manufactures its fair share of skin lightening creams, which in the end undercuts that documentary’s message.
Johnson & Johnson is another personal care company that said it would either rebrand or discontinue its skin whitening products sold in market such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Like many outcomes related to the ongoing race relations activism sweeping across the world, questions linger whether this ongoing outcry will really change society in the long term. After all, the Nikkei Asian Review notes that according to Future Market Insights, the skin whitening products industry is worth about $13 billion – and more than half of those revenues are generated in Asia. And assuming current outrage over these products subsides, that amount is projected to grow to $24 billion by 2027.
Image credit: Pexels
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.