Skin-Lightening Industry Is Facing A Long Overdue Reckoning

Before winning the title of Miss America in 2014, Nina Davuluri had grappled with years of internalized colorism. On trips home to India for the summer, she remembers seeing advertisements for skin-lightening products on television and billboards, and she watched as critics heaped praise on Bollywood actresses with lighter complexions. She was just five years old when her family members told her not to spend too much time under the sun while learning to ride a bike or she’d get “too dark.”

Davuluri’s experience with colorism wasn’t limited to her time in India. Before meeting her college boyfriend’s Indian parents in Ohio, she asked him if he thought they would approve of her. Davuluri was devastated when her ex-boyfriend implied his mom might consider her “too dark.”

Not long after that experience, Davuluri reached a tipping point. After spending two years in training, she became the first woman of Indian descent to win Miss America. But instead of her family country rooting her on, she remembers reading articles that dissected her complexion. That’s when she decided to take the opportunity as a public figure to speak out against the deep-rooted discrimination that she had faced for far too long. “I had the opportunity to really change what that conversation looks like,” Davuluri tells Refinery29.

The beauty queen-turned-activist focused her efforts on dismantling the skin-lightening industry, a rapidly growing market that’s estimated to reach a valuation of $24 billion in the next decade. Skin lightening, also referred to as bleaching and whitening, reduces the amount of melanin or pigment in the skin through lasers, peels, creams, soaps, injectables, pills, and more. In recent years, countries have experienced dangerous skin-bleaching epidemics, with rates of use as high as 77% among women in Nigeria.

Along with launching a docuseries called #COMPLEXion that unpacks these issues in detail, Davuluri recently started a petition calling to end the production of skin-whitening products and the toxic messaging behind them. Davuluri’s campaign garnered over 3,400 signatures in three weeks, and more petitions have emerged since then — including one that has collected more than 13,000 signatures.

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – SEPTEMBER 16: Miss America Nina Davuluri addresses media during the 2014 Miss America Competition Winner Press Conference at Boardwalk Hall Arena on September 16, 2013 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for changes to occur. This week, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing two lines of skin-lightening products — Neutrogena Fine Fairness, which is only sold in Asia and the Middle East, and Clean & Clear Fairness, which is only sold in India.

Johnson & Johnson claims that the brand had already planned to discontinue Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness products and replace them with a Bright Boost line that focuses on even skin tone versus lightening. But the heightened conversations amid the Black Lives Matter protests made the change more urgent. “Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Dark Spot Reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone. This was never our intention — healthy skin is beautiful skin,” Kim Montagnino, Senior Director of Global Corporate Media Relations at Johnson & Johnson, tells Refinery29.

While the company stresses that these lines represented fewer than 1% of Johnson & Johnson’s global beauty sales in 2019, this move was pivotal and long-awaited. “To see this happen, it feels a little surreal,” says Davuluri. Now, consumers are calling on more global companies, including Unilever, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble, to follow suit. One of the most recognized lines on the market is Fair & Lovely, which sells in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. According to Euromonitor, and as reported by the Wall Street Journal, this line holds a 27% share of the skin-care category in India, which makes it the largest personal-care brand in the country.

While Davuluri understands the financial impact of these decisions, she hopes brands will shift resources to make a difference. “I’m asking these companies to spend the billions of dollars from the revenue of these products and put the research into creating products that are inclusive for all skin tones and are socially impactful,” she says. “It’s not about shutting down a company. It’s about using their resources.”

Inspired by Johnson & Johnson’s decision, Davuluri and other activists who have launched petitionsincluding Marvi Ahmed, Anum Chandani, Hira Hashmi, Tejasvini Mantripragada, Shobia Ooruthirapathy, and Aritha Wickramasinghe — came together to send an open letter to Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever. “We implore you to take ownership as a company and recognize the social responsibility that you have to your consumers, particularly those without access to education & the opportunity to raise their voices,” they wrote in a letter, which was shared with Refinery29.

“Unless companies and media take an active approach to dismantle the very core beliefs that they themselves have built, we can’t break the cycle.”

nina Davuluri

Davuluri remained hopeful that Unilever would make a move — and they did. On June 25, Unilever announced that it was going to rename the Fair & Lovely brand in India. “We are making our skin care portfolio more inclusive and want to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty,” Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Unilever, said in a press statement. This decision follows the company’s removal of before-and-after images, which were intended to show the product results, on the packaging in 2019. The corporation also says it will be shifting its marketing efforts “to feature women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty across India.”

Unilever did not state any plans of halting production of the line, and it stands by its claim that the Fair & Lovely products have “multiple skin health benefits” and are not intended to bleach skin. “The brand has never been and is not a bleaching product,” read the statement.

Skin-lightening products, which often contain hydroquinone or mercury, remain largely unregulated and researchers are still determining the full extent of the risks for people who use them. The World Health Organization has warned against these products, and they are currently banned in the European Union and in countries like Ghana, Japan, and Australia. “We currently do not have enough studies that establish either the safety or effectiveness for any treatments for generalized skin lightening for the entire body,” Annie Chiu, MD, board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist in Los Angeles, previously told Refinery29.

Earlier this year, the European Union announced that Fair & Lovely creams in particular were banned in Norway for containing mercury and hydroquinone. Hindustan Unilever denied these claims to an India-based publication, adding that the products examined could be counterfeit since the brand’s formulas do not contain those specific ingredients.

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While Unilever’s decision is a sign of progress, Davuluri stresses that this is only the start and that all eyes are on large corporations now. “This is a win, but it’s only the beginning,” she tells us. “How Unilever executes their rebranding strategy and new advertisement campaigns will be incredibly telling of their intentions.” Given these recent changes, the activist also hopes to see a shift in Bollywood, which continues to peddle harmful messaging through casting and the endorsement of skin-whitening products by actors. 

Ultimately, the fight is far from done. Davuluri urges people to sign petitions, vote with their dollars, and to call on all markets to end campaigns that promote the idea that lighter skin is better. “This is one piece of a much larger fight to end colorism,” she says. “Unless companies and media take an active approach to dismantle the very core beliefs that they themselves have built, we can’t break the cycle.”

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