Beauty companies distanced themselves from ‘skin-whitening.’ But outside the West, it appears to be business as usual for now
With multinationals pressured by the public to express support for racial equality, consumers were quick to highlight the inconsistency between companies’ public statements and their continued promotion of creams, serums and lotions promising to “whiten” users’ skin. In response, several major skincare manufacturers pledged to revise their branding and product lines.
For campaigners, these were small but significant steps toward rewriting industry narratives equating beauty — and, often, success and happiness — with whiteness. Indeed, visit any of these cosmetic giants’ websites from the US or Europe today, and explicit references to skin color are seemingly absent.
Log on from Asia, Africa or the Middle East, however, and it’s a different story.
A large billboard advertising the “Fair and Lovely” skin lightening cream in Jessore, Bangladesh in 2010. Several major skincare manufacturers, including Unilever who produce Fair and Lovely, have since pledged to revise their branding and product lines to remove words like “whitening” and “fair.” Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images
The US Spanish-language website for Pond’s operated an entire website section openly branded as “whitening” until CNN reached out for comment about the page this week. Credit: Pond’s
Amina Mire, who has been researching the skin whitening industry for two decades, believes that ongoing promotion of products that purport to whiten users’ skin shows that non-Western markets are still “too lucrative” for multinational companies to take more meaningful action. While she recognizes that recent corporate announcements are “100% a step in the right direction,” the sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, thinks that multinationals will “not make any concessions — or at least very little concession — in the Asian market.”
“They are cleaning up their websites … but on billboards and in their marketing, they know who their consumers are,” she told CNN. Mire claims that brands would resist calls to soften messages used to target women outside the West, because consumers in many of those markets “demand” explicit reassurances that the products whiten skin.
In a statement, L’Oréal it has “made updates” to its product ranges, but that “due to manufacturing schedules and also product registration and certification requirements, this transition is not fully complete across all markets and materials.” A spokesperson added that the company is “committed and focused on removing the term ‘whitening’ as fast as possible in all markets.” The company also said the use of words like “bihaku” is regulated in East Asian countries, and that the terms are “commonly used in these markets to describe an even, radiant and blemish-free skin tone.”
A Unilever spokesperson, meanwhile, said that the company has stopped using the words “fair,” “white” and “light,” as they “suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right.” The statement added that “nearly all” of the company’s packaging and communications have been updated to reflect this. “Consumers may still find previous packaging available due to factors such as stock pipelines, or previous marketing descriptions on some third-party websites,” the spokesperson said.
In contrast to Unilever and L’Oréal, some cosmetics companies have tried to avoid charges of hypocrisy by staying quiet on the matter altogether.
For instance, Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido, whose high-end skin products are now widely available in Europe and the US, has made no public announcements regarding the branding of its “White Lucent” range. When asked about this by CNN last year, the company responded with a statement saying that its products “do not have the ability to whiten the skin,” adding: “We do not sell whitening products nor do we recommend whitening.” Shiseido declined CNN’s request for further comment on the matter.
Nivea, whose name the company says translates as “snow white,” appears to have gone a different route. As recently as last month, almost two years after Beiersdorf AG promised changes, CNN found that regional websites all carried an extensive FAQ acknowledging that “beauty in Asia and Africa is often connected to a lighter complexion.” It explained that its products do “not have any influence on the color of the skin,” and that Nivea does not promote skin lightening.
In statement, a spokesperson for Beiersdorf AG said that products using the term “whitening” are “in the process of being changed” and that “adaptations to our product communication will become more visible … gradually in the coming months.” The company said it is “on a journey and … committed to becoming better,” and that its products are “typically developed, produced and marketed on a regional basis in response to local consumer needs.”
Mire suggests that terms like “glowing” and “brightening,” which are increasingly used by cosmetics firms as substitutes, are as steeped in colonial and racial narratives as the words they’re replacing. She believes the branding of these products continues to exploit historic and racialized associations between skin tone and status.
The word “whitening” may have “become problematic,” Mire said, but the products still link lightness “with urban progress, with style, with sophistication … with aspects of globalization and modernity.”
In its statement to CNN, L’Oréal said that “brightening” was “most appropriate terminology” for products addressing concerns such as “uneven skin-tone, blemishes and spots, mainly due to the harmful effects of UV radiation.”
‘A troubling inconsistency’
If the decision to rename Fair & Lovely was a seminal moment in the campaign against skin whitening, then Indian student Chandana Hiran was one of its key protagonists. Her viral #AllShadesAreLovely petition garnered over 35,000 signatures, drawing global attention to a brand that is little-known outside parts of Asia and Africa.
For Hiran, who is set to join an MBA program at Canada’s Ivey Business School, the campaign’s apparent success left her with mixed emotions.
“My initial reaction was that it is a step in the right direction,” she told CNN from Mumbai, adding that she treated the decision as tacit acknowledgment that “there was something wrong with what was done in the past.” But the 24-year-old campaigner soon realized that the original name continued to be featured prominently on products — albeit as a message to consumers that reads: “Fair & Lovely is now Glow & Lovely.”
In 2020, consumer giant Unilever announced that it was changing the name of its controversial Fair & Lovely brand to Glow & Lovely. The type of packaging seen on the left (pictured in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2020) has since been replaced with the branding on the right (pictured in Mumbai, India, in 2021), though campaigners note that the former name of the cream still features prominently, as do images of lighter-skinned women. Credit: AP/Getty
This shows that the manufacturers have changed the branding but not distanced themselves from the product itself, Hiran said, adding: “Nowhere in the marketing or advertising do they acknowledge why it became Glow & Lovely or why there was a problem with Fair & Lovely.”
The persistent use of “whitening” and “fair” in other parts of the Unilever empire, such as the Lakmé and Block & White brands, produces a troubling inconsistency, Hiran said, asking: “If they recognize that this thing is problematic in one region, why not do it for all regions?” Why wait for somebody to come and tell you, ‘Hey, you need to do it here as well’?”
Unilever declined to comment on questions relating to Glow & Lovely, including queries on historical advertising campaigns and plans to remove the brand’s old name from its packaging.
Legitimizing the skin whitening market
Arzi Adbi, an assistant professor in strategy and policy at the National University of Singapore Business School, said he believes that these companies are promoting beauty ideals linked to lighter skin and fueling demand that could indirectly put people’s health at risk.
“(The multinationals’) corporate governance standards are relatively higher: They do their audits and are careful about not launching a product that will cause physical harm,” he told CNN. “But once you’ve legitimized a market for skin whitening, you can’t control some of the local, smaller firms in countries like India that … launch stronger and riskier products, which can actually whiten the skin in the short run but lead to longer-term adverse side effects.”
Describing Unilever’s decision to drop the word “fair” from its branding as an “extremely cosmetic change,” Adbi said that a more meaningful move would be acknowledging the impact of historical advertising campaigns that appeared to link lighter skin with improved life outcomes.
“If they were serious about it, they should issue an apology for the TV commercials in the Indian market — ones that showed darker-skinned women not getting good jobs or husbands until they start applying these products,” Abdi said.
Various other brands have been condemned for similar promotional campaigns. In 2008, a controversial Pond’s ad series saw Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra play a character who wins back her lover by using the products to get a “pinkish-white glow” (she apologized for her role in the commercials in her 2021 memoir).
Hiran echoed Adbi’s call for beauty companies to actively acknowledge and renounce problematic past campaigns, remembering the impact they had on her as a child growing up in India.
“I would always feel inferior,” she said. “(You feel like) nobody’s going to marry you and that everything the fairness cream advertisements showed was true. You would not find a partner, you would not be selected for a job, you will be discriminated against, bullied. My self-esteem was non-existent for a long, long time.”
“That narrative was being held by society as a whole,” she added. “And everybody was in on it.”
Today, the narrative is, slowly, changing. But the messages you hear — and how loudly you hear them — may very much depend on where in the world you live.