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What’s in a Name? Selling Skin Lightening Creams Is What’s Unfair

Watch out for words like glow, radiant, white, brightening, lightening products. 

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Hot Take
4 min read
What’s in a Name? Selling Skin Lightening Creams Is What’s Unfair
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How has the world changed since 1975? Well, I reckon you might say a lot.

It took Unilever 45 years to realise how their product ‘Fair and Lovely’ was rather problematic. The brand has finally decided to drop the word ‘fair’ after US-based multinational Johnsons & Johnsons announced that they will stop production of their ‘Clean and Clear’ fairness range of products after the Black Lives Movement protests made skincare brands take stock of their own contribution to systemic racism.

“We’re committed to a skincare portfolio that's inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty. That’s why we’re removing the words ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ & ‘lightening’ from products, and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name,” said Unilever in their tweet.

This surely is a welcome move from a brand that has been appropriating fair skin for sales for over four decades now, but what about the other brands that don’t just continue to sell “fairness” creams labelled as lightening, whitening but also sell cleansers, serums, face oils etc for a ‘radiant skin’?

Earlier this year, the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, aimed to make misleading advertisements that promote fairness creams, obesity reduction pills, improve height etc., punishable by law. But the catch here is that did not stop brands from advertising for perfect skin.

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Not only does this advertising gimmick make people believe that they will end up with lighter skin but these also target insecurities of someone who already hears taunts and tales about “fairer skin” from the people around them. That job, that partner you want, everything is made out to be a result of “fairer” skin.

According to the reports, the women's fairness cream category is anticipated to achieve market revenues of more than Rs. 5,000 crore by the year 2023.

Here are some ways in which brands Indian and foreign brands market “fairness” products and sometimes without using the word “fairness”.

Lakme Perfect Radiance, Lotus White Glow, Biotique Bio Coconut Whitening & Brightening Cream, White Tone, Himalaya’s Natural Glow - the list goes on and on...

On the face of it, one might say that these brands aren’t appropriating “fairness”. The fact of the matter is, using words like light, bright, glow, white, radiant is in fact subtly selling the idea of fair, white skin. Not just creams, moisturisers, brands tend to make a whole range of products around them. And let’s not forget fairness bleach and another term gaining popularity now is ‘tan removal’ - well because everything that’s not fair is tanned, even if that’s your skin colour.

Let’s take a look at some of these advertisements.

Lakmé’s Perfect Radiance Serum reduces skin darkening and dull-ish skin to reveal “hi-res crystal radiance.” Can someone tell me if they are talking about a face serum or a TV cleaner? Hi-res, excuse me?

This ad for Garnier Light Complete Serum Cream claims to ban dull skin and spots. Do you know what should be banned? These ads and these products.

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Then there are some brands like Neutrogena and Garnier that have to this day not budged from labelling their products as ‘fairness’ creams etc. Their ‘Fine Fairness’ and ‘Complete White Fairness’ range are popular among consumers.

Celebrities & Endorsements

As the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests gathered momentum in the US, many Indian celebrities took to Twitter and Instagram to extend their support. Some of these Indian celebrities have themselves been ambassadors, endorsers of fairness creams in India. Kareena Kapoor Khan, Katrina Kaif, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Disha Patani, Yami Gautam, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Dia Mirza, Sonam Kapoor...the list is endless.

The beauty industry even came out with a male version of the product ‘Fair and Handsome’, endorsed by none other than Shah Rukh Khan.

In the beginning of June 2020, Abhay Deol took to social media to talk about the messaging celebrities are part of when endorsing these brands and products. He spoke about the celebrity status being attached to fair skin endorsements. He wrote, “Overall analysis: Fairness creams in India have evolved over the years, from being fairness creams to now using euphemisms like “skin brightening/ whitening”, or “lightening creams”. Most brands no longer want to be associated directly with being termed as 'fairness creams’. So now we have brands selling “HD glow”, “White beauty”, “white glow”, “fine fairness”, and so on. Over the years these companies have turned their attention towards the Indian Men, who are now trying to be “fair and handsome”, and have dedicated power white ranges for them too.”

The actor called out the ‘wokest of woke’ for being associated with fairness cream endorsements and then extending supporting support to BLM.

This is in fact - peak 2020 or wait, peak hypocrisy.

While Unilever coming ahead and standing out in the clutter, trying to undo a mistake it started 45 years ago, is welcome, can systemic racism we grew up with and have experienced all our lives be erased by erasing ‘fair’ from ‘Fair & Lovely’?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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