Skin-lightening is a booming part of the cosmetics industry and some of your favourite brands are
telling women worldwide that they need whiter skin to make them happy.
In 2017, the skin-lightening industry was valued at $4.8 billion, and it is projected to grow to $8.9
billion by 2027. The market is truly global, as 40 per cent of women in China use skin whitening products, 61 per cent in India and 77 per cent in Nigeria.
Creams, pills and injections that claim to whiten skin can be seriously harmful. The NHS lists
thinning of the skin, blood vessels becoming visible, and kidney, liver and nerve damage as
possible side effects. Skin whitening products have been known to contain mercury and
dangerously high levels of hydroquinone, the ingredient that inhibits melanin formation. A UK-wide
initiative that aimed to clamp down on the sale of illegal skin bleaching products in 2018 identified
45 traders and resulted in numerous convictions and fines.
The products made by our favourite brands may be safe to use, but these companies are still using
their money to tell consumers that dark skin is a fault that must be corrected if they want to be
attractive and successful. On Unilever’s UK website, they proudly state that their brands are
present in 98 per cent of British homes and their products are used by two billion people every day. You
can scroll through a list of the companies they own, which includes Dove, Lynx, Vaseline, Ben and
Jerry’s, Carte D’Or and PG Tips. But they leave out Fair and Lovely, the fairness cream launched
in 1978 that is now sold in 40 countries, and in the words of their official Facebook page, has
‘touch(ed) the lives of 250 million women’.
Their TV adverts generally start with an unhappy woman who is unable to attract the man of her
dreams or land a prestigious job. She uses the face cream, her skin gets lighter and she achieves
her goal. They also frequently make use of graphics demonstrating the ‘science’ behind the cream
that look remarkably similar to adverts for household cleaning products, making dark pigmentation
look like dirt that needs to be cleaned away.
But Unilever is not the only international giant cashing in on colourism: L’Oreal, the biggest
cosmetics company in the world, has a product range called ‘White Perfect’. Their website states
‘Our skin whitening products work to fade dark spots and brighten skin to give you the fair and
flawless complexion you desire. They claim to help women ‘achieve clear, translucent and radiant
This also begs the question of why anyone would want their skin to be literally see-through.
Procter and Gamble, the company who own Always, Tampax, Gillette, Daz, Pampers, and many
other everyday brands, has won several awards for social responsibility, including being named on
Forbes Magazine’s top 100 list of ‘America’s Best Corporate Citizens’. In 2018, their skincare
brand Olay launched the #FaceAnything campaign, which employed a group of ethnically diverse
models with different body shapes and sizes to call for women to have more self-confidence. At the
same time, on their Indian website, they are selling Olay Natural White Day Glowing Fairness
cream which claims to have ‘7 fairness benefits in just one bottle’. The corporate hypocrisy is
It seems that many of us in the UK and the US are giving our money to companies that claim to
encourage diversity and feminism when really they are perpetuating colourism in other parts of the
globe. The cultural norm they are encouraging means girls are often forced to stay inside during
the day to maintain pale skin and many resort to dangerous skin bleaching products that harm their
long term health.
It would be almost impossible to boycott all the brands owned by these corporate
giants, but hopefully raising awareness of this issue will mean in the future they will be forced to
answer for their two-faced corporate image.
Image: via johnlaurits.com