There’s a creation story in Thailand. In the beginning god created man. At first, he cooked the people too much (dark skinned people). Then he cooked them too little (pasty westerners). Finally, he cooked them just right (light skinned Asians) .
Skin color is determined by the degree of pigmentation of the skin which depends on the melanin content of the keratinocytes. It is the body’s natural protection against solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation. But all over Asia, the bias towards fair skin that has come from colonial hangover is still on. From Korea to Japan to Thailand to India, dark skinned people are obsessed with fairness cream . That being said, this issue is not just unique to South Asia. Whitening creams are sold by leading brands like Olay, Ponds and many other favorite brands in Africa, the Caribbean and even in the Middle East .
Fairness cream and Facts:
This widespread preference for fair skin has been exploited by the manufacturers of fairness creams. “Fair is beautiful” is deeply rooted in Indian culture. A consumer goods giant launched the mother of all fairness creams in the subcontinent in 1976. Today, the product is marketed in over 38 countries and has become the largest selling skin lightening cream in the world. A number of other companies have also jumped on the ‘Fairness creams’ bandwagon. The craze for fairness creams has emerged in the last fifty years. Emami Naturally Fair Herbal Fairness Cream came in during early 90s, CavinKare’s Fairever in 1998 and Godrej’s FairGlow in 1999. Emami focused on pearl extracts, FairGlow on the ‘no compromise with fair skin’ positioning whereas Fairever, that went on to be the biggest challenger brand to Fair & Lovely centered its advertising around its two unique ingredients — saffron and milk. Market shares in skin whitening for men in Asia is also rising steadily, particularly in Japan, India and China and are expected to rapidly increase.
How fairness products work ?
Let’s understand the important point – No fairness cream can make the individual fairer than the skin with which the person was born. What they can do is only reverse the damage done by unprotected long exposure to the sun and protect the person against the harsh sun rays. When used regularly, it can gently but effectively lighten and improve skin tone.
Skin whitening products currently available in the market can be categorized into botanical products, biotechnological actives, or chemical agents when applied on the human skin to achieve a lighter skin tone. Promotions targeted at affluent White middle aged women allure them even with the possibility of removing the signs of the aging process, an unhealthy lifestyle, and pollution from the skin. High end skin whitening products are often labeled under the new quasi-pharmaceutical category called cosmeceuticals—a hybrid entity with pharmaceutical and cosmetic properties.
The color of our skin is due to the polymeric, amorphous, non-proteinaceous pigment called melanin. Melanin is produced in the skin through a biochemical process called melanogenesis. Dermal melanin is produced by melanocytes, which are found in the stra-tum basale of the epidermis. The difference in skin color between fair people and dark people is due not to the number (quantity) of melanocytes in their skin, but to the melanocytes’ level of activity (quantity and relative amounts of eumelanin and pheomelanin).
Skin-lightening agents are any ingredient or combination of ingredients that interfere in any step of the melanogenesis pathway, melanin transfer, or desquamation that results in lowering pigmentation on the surface of the skin.
The most important factor other than inheritance factor affecting skin pigmentation is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Exposure to UV radiation results in the generation of free radicals. It has been identified that ROS (reactive oxygen species) are able to oxidize tyrosinase and DOPA to melanin, and this is one of the major causes for tanning. Although antioxidants are present in tissues, they may not be able to reduce the radicals, depending on the extent of UV expo-sure. Hence the quenching of free radicals would also help in reducing the synthesis of melanin.
Adverse effects of skin lightening preparations
Certain advertisements portray the sun as an enemy and harp on the theme that the skin should be protected using sunscreens and sun blocks. A de-melanised skin would of course be more vulnerable to damage by the sun. Many fairness creams may contain skin-bleaching agents like hydroquinone, steroids, mercury salts, hydrogen peroxide and magnesium peroxide among others.
- Mercury derivatives may cause neurotoxicity, mercury-induced nephropathy and immunotoxicity.
- Hydroquinone preparations can cause ochronosis, hyperchromic or hypochromic erythrocytes and neuropathy . There are grave doubts about the safety of hydroquinone and it has been banned in Japan, Europe and Australia.
- It is reported that up to 60% of those who practice skin lightening may suffer from at least one complication.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o story
Actress Lupita Nyong’o who won the Oscar for the best supporting actress for her performance in 12 Years A Slave (which also won the best picture) in 2014, revealed that she was often teased for being dark-skinned, and she used to pray to god for a lighter skin during her adolescence. The star says she was so ashamed she couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror, and added: ‘Every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.’
Interesting law suit:
Paras Jain recovered Rs 15 lakh in damages from India’s first and biggest fairness cream brand Emami in 2015, for causing psychological hardship to his brother Nikhil Jain, through its allegedly false claims of fairness. All of this happened because his brother Nikhil Jain failed to get his skin colour fairer after using Emami product.
Wave against fairness:
A non-profit organisation called ‘Women of Worth’ launched a campaign in 2009 called ‘Dark is Beautiful’. Women of Worth, is a women’s movement started by Kavitha Emmanuel “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the colour of their skin.” Women of Worth’s “Beauty Beyond Colour” initiative is speaking up for men and boys, who are also targets of “unfair” advertising.
Bollywood filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who directed films such as Bandit Queen‘ and Elizabeth‘, initiated a campaign in 2012 with the Twitter hash tag #adswedontbuy‘ to protest against irresponsible ads, including ads for skin whitening creams.
For sure these movements will be able to change the mindset of some. Looking forward to the future when a person will be judged only by their performance, inner strength and mettle and not by the way they look. Hope to see a matrimonial ad saying ‘looking for educated, talented, confident, independent girl for our son’. Till then fairness creams will continue filling their kitties with billions….