How Cosmetics Industry Is Profiting Off Racism

By Updated at 2020-09-25 03:11:28 +0000


The Black Lives Matter movement has launched a new debate about racism. People from the US to Africa and Asia face discrimination based on their skin colour - benefiting the cosmetics industry.

Nairobi/New Delhi (dpa) – Throughout her working life, Yvonne Okwara, a TV presenter, was always told that she was too dark-skinned.

"I was always being told that I'm too dark for television and that I need more make-up," she says, recalling comments from bosses and colleagues. It was made clear to her early in her career that "my looks and my skin colour wouldn't get me far, because they aren't what society wants," says Okwara, who's now a household name in Kenya thanks to her work as a senior news anchor for Citizen Television.

"Even among Africans, there's a stigma against people with darker skin colour, there are different levels of discrimination," she says. 

Such discrimination is common throughout Africa and Asia, and helps to fuel a billion-dollar industry for skin-lightening products, which have been sold for decades and sometimes contain harmful substances.

But thanks to a campaign by Black Lives Matter, an anti-racism movement that started in the US in 2013, this is slowly changing.

Indian dermatologist Rashmi Sarkar says that not only do some of the products contain bleaching agents, which can cause rashes, but many also only have a temporary effect - forcing buyers to continue buying these products their entire lives in order to get the desired effect.

That does not stop people from buying them, however. 

Growing up in India, Vaidehi Sriram recalls even as a child feeling as though her skin was too dark, especially when teachers would praise how lighter-skinned the other girls looked, she says.

Later, at family gatherings, relatives told her that she was too dark to be able to find a good husband. They advised her not to wear pink dresses, as they would make her look even darker. So as youngsters, Siram and her sisters smeared their faces with cream, hoping to look lighter. "Sometimes we looked as white as ghosts," she recalls. 

The industry for skin-lightening products is booming. The market was worth 4.4 billion dollars in 2018 and is forecast to grow to 8.7 billion dollars in 2027, according to market research institute Strategy MRC. That is because looks matter ever more, and potential customers have more money to spend. 

Growth is expected to be particularly lucrative in the Asia-Pacific region, the authors say. The market is dominated by major beauty and health care corporations such as Unilever and Johnson and Johnson. 

However, the industry is being gradually forced to change as movements like Black Lives Matter question these beauty ideals.

"In the wake of anti-racist protests and movements, some manufacturers and companies are thinking about changing or rebranding their skin-lightening products," says Rupali Swain of market researcher GMI. 

That applies to cosmetics giant Unilever, whose lightening cream "Fair and Lovely" has been a bestseller in India for years. 

The company was running an ad until recently that showed people who used the cream leading happier, more successful lives.

The word "fair" has since been criticized, however, prompting the company to rename the product "Glow and Lovely." 

"We recognize that the use of the words 'fair,' 'white' and 'light' suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right," a Unilever spokesperson says, adding that the company recently decided to scrap these words entirely from its packaging and marketing.

Other companies are going a step further. 

Johnson and Johnson, for example, recently announced that it will stop selling two of its product lines. 

"Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Neutrogena and Clean and Clear dark-spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone," the company says in a statement. "This was never our intention - healthy skin is beautiful skin."

Many critics have called on Unilever to stop producing Fair and Lovely altogether. The cream "promotes anti-blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers," according to a petition.

But the change also has to come from within society. 

TV presenter Okwara never used skin-lightening products herself, but she says that "there are days on which you wake up and ask yourself what your life would be like if you looked different."

Discrimination based on people's skin colour is the root cause of the problem, and this must be addressed, she says. 

"If skin colour actually didn't matter ... then the industry for skin-lightening products wouldn't exist."

Sriram has stopped using these products. And she wears pink dresses too, because she likes the colour. 

dpa Deutsche Presse Agentur