America’s Favorite Beauty Brands are Still Pushing Skin Lightening Overseas

Major companies like L'Oréal, Garnier and Ponds are still making and marketing skin lightening products overseas.

Last weekend, Johnson & Johnson announced it would no longer sell skin-lightening products. The company will be axing Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness line and Clean & Clear’s Clear Fairness creams in Asia, the Middle East and India. “Some product names or claims on our dark spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” the company said in a statement. “This was never our intention—healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to discontinuing these products sets a much-needed precedent for the beauty industry. It comes just weeks after social media users called out Indian celebrities who had created social media posts in support of Black Lives Matter, but also previously endorsed skin-lightening creams. The actresses included Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Disha Patani and Kiara Advani. All of them were advertising the creams of brands that are household names in America—L’Oréal, Ponds and Garnier.

Nivea—a company that came under fire in 2017 for a British ad campaign that featured the phrase “White is purity”—is also a major player when it comes to skin-lightening products. As is Unilever, the parent company of Dove—a brand known for pushing a message of inclusivity in the United States.

Unilever has been historically unrepentant about its Fair & Lovely brand and the accompanying marketing campaigns that have often equated romantic and professional success with lighter skin. In 2017, a statement from Unilever defended its stance by saying: “Even-toned and lighter skin remains the most sought-after beauty desire across Asia and parts of Africa and Latin America.” Fair & Lovely remains one of the most commonly available skin-lightening brands in the United States.

In the last few weeks, some of these same companies have paid lip service to America’s racial justice movement.

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(That last post from L’Oréal prompted a response from model Munroe Bergdorf who claimed that in 2017, the company “dropped me from a campaign and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy.”)

For the beauty industry, promoting and selling lighter skin tones is a multi-billion dollar business—specifically, $8.3 billion in 2018. In 2009, Indian consumers alone spent $432 million in pursuit of lighter skin. And while America does not see the types of mainstream marketing used in other parts of the world, these kinds of products aren’t hard to find in local pharmacies and beauty shops. What's more, the internet has made available a mind-boggling array of skin-lightening products.

A quick Google search sent me almost immediately to an Amazon page unabashedly titled “Skin Bleaching.” And while many of the items on the page are dressed up as dark spot correctors, scar reducers or “brightening” products, there are numerous other creams, serums and supplements that are more brazen about their raison d’être.

While some products are undoubtedly safer than others, America has known for decades that skin-lightening products can be dangerous. In 2010, the New York Times reported that: “Dermatologists nationwide are seeing women of Hispanic and African descent, among others, with severe side effects ... from the misuse of skin-lightening creams, many with prescription-strength ingredients,” including steroids.

In that same article, one dermatologist, Dr. Eliot F. Battle Jr, stated: “It’s happening more because the internet has been a great source for these patients to get physician-strength or prescription-strength products.”

The fight against skin-lightening products has already started in other countries. In 2015, they were banned on the Ivory Coast. In 2019, they were banned in Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan. However, despite a Europe-wide ban on skin-lightening products containing dangerous ingredients (such as hydroquinone and mercury), consumers there are still seeking them out.

Last year, Britain’s Local Government Association issued a warning after seizing thousands of illegal skin-lightening products. Calling hydroquinone “the biological equivalent of paint stripper,” an LGA representative said: “Skin creams containing banned ingredients are very dangerous and could seriously damage your health, scar you for life and even kill you, so they should be avoided at all costs.”

While larger companies have the means to more rigorously test their products before they hit the shelves, the social implications of all skin-lightening brands are the same across the board. Not only do they have roots in colonial ideals around beauty and status, Hasan Minaj also recently highlighted the link between such products and racism towards the Black community.

In an impassioned June 3 monologue, speaking specifically of the South Asian community, Minaj said:

We love Black America on screen, in our living rooms. But if a Black man walks into your living room, or wants to date—God forbid, marry—your daughter? You’d call the cops! Do you know what we call Black people? We call them 'Kala.' It means black—not in a good way. If someone in your family is dark skinned, we clown them. We call them 'Kallu.' Our Bollywood stars do skin whitening commercials, so we don’t look Black. It is bad to be Black in Desi culture, even though we all wish we were Black. You don’t think that affects how we view Black people?

There are signs that skin-lightening fatigue amongst consumers is on the rise. Just this week, Shaadi—a dating site popular with the Indian diaspora—removed a feature that asked its users to specify the lightness of their skin tone, using descriptors including ‘Fair,’ ‘Wheatish,’ and ‘Dark.’ The decision was made just two weeks after a petition was set up, demanding the change.

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At this moment of trying to exact systemic change at the highest levels, worrying about what the cosmetics industry is doing can seem somewhat inconsequential. But while statues are being torn down, old movies are being reevaluated and TV shows are being revised, it would serve American consumers to understand just which companies continue to profit from, and push, beauty ideals that center white supremacy.