Over the past five years, there have been 240 unique skin-lightening products launched in India, promising fairer skin with prolonged usage. International brands like Dove, Olay, and Garnier have all developed their own night creams, facial cleansers, and moisturisers, with Vaseline producing a particularly offensive “skin lightening” Facebook app to accompany their product launch in 2010. The Vaseline app beckons Indian users to download their profile picture and drag a line across their face that digitally transforms their dark looks to a dramatically lighter visage.
This advertisement was released by Vaseline
This past year, several companies have taken the obsession with fair skin to a new level, releasing products that lighten not just the users face, but their armpits and genital areas. Hardly a moment can be spent watching TV before a Bollywood star pops on screen sharing their transformation from dusky to milky-white. Even Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu, known for their dark-skinned beauty, have endorsed products.
What’s next? Eyeball bleaching? Selling genetic alteration tools so parents can determine their children’s skin tone before birth?
More harmful then the products themselves are the societal pressures placed on dark-skinned individuals to “lighten up” as one Dove commercial hailed. It’s rare that the market attempts to fill a gap
when there is no demand and in India, where skin whitening creams outsell Coca-Cola, the demand is high.
Where has this obsession with fairness originated?
In part, it’s probably due to ancient scriptures, epics, or folk tales. The good character is always portrayed as being fair in complexion, suggesting that the fair are fair dealing and the dark complexioned has evil intentions. The other part of the equation can be linked to 200 years of British rule, where being white meant you were a ruler and being brown meant you were the ruled. Add a complex caste system and the resulting inequalities, and you have a situation ripe for idealising whiteness as the height of beauty.
Why skin creams are harmful
Even more problematic than the society-wide desire for fair skin are the fair skin creams themselves, which cause skin cancer, liver, and kidney damage. There are two main chemicals found in most skin lightening products – hydroquinone or mercury, both extremely toxic. Hydroquinone is a powerful chemical used in photo processing and the manufacture of rubber. Mercury in the form of mercury chloride is carcinogenic and appears on a list of toxic substances that can only be purchased via pharmacies with prescribed labels.
Both of these chemicals prevent the production of melanin, initially making the user appear lighter. In the long term, however, these chemicals actually react with ultra violet rays and lead to more pigmentation and premature ageing. Typically, when this happens, the user applies more skin lightening cream, creating a vicious cycle.
Is this legal?
After reading about the health problems associated with hydroquinone and mercury, you must be wondering: how are these creams legal? They wouldn’t be sold in India if they were that harmful, right?
Well in some countries, they aren’t legal. Certain skin-lightening products containing hydroquinone are already banned for sale in the European Union, Australia, and Japan. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have put forth a proposal to ban the over-the-counter sale of such products. Many countries are taking steps to ban “over the counter” lightening products, making a prescription (and dermatologist approval a pre-requisite).
What should I do if I still want lighter skin?
Keep in mind that it’s not possible to safely lighten your skin completely and that advertisements and TV shows (and also those Bollywood stars) do not present realistic results from usage of whitening cream. Many common myths about whitening your skin (like if you eat white foods you are more likely to have lighter skin) are just that: myths, completely unfounded and not based on fact. If you still feel the need to buy skin creams, check out this article that has the best information on the types of creams to buy.
What should I keep in mind?
It’s important to understand that different regions of India will produce a diversity of skin types and colouring. What is presented as the ideal of beauty, white skin and light eyes, can be attained in the short-term by using these lightening creams. But over a long-term they will be severely detrimental.
India, as a culture, must also look inwardly to redefine what is beautiful. A majority of those walking around on the street don’t look like the models on television. Unlike bodyweight or hair colour, there is not a healthy way to lighten skin (at least not to the degree expressed in commercials). The pressure from society, family members, and even the matrimonial section in the newspapers, is directly contributing to an obsession with light skin that has persisted for centuries.