It’s a sign of a changing culture that so many brands have gotten on board with denouncing structural racism. But for many big corporations, the messages posted on social media don’t align with the ways their companies run — or how they actually make their money.
Unilever, the consumer goods multinational that owns brands including Dove, Noxzema, Vim, Ben and Jerry’s and Q-Tips, is coming under fire for their public support of racial justice movements.
According to Unilever’s website, respecting human rights is at the core of their business model. But one of the companies they own, Fair & Lovely, sells skin-lightening cream in India.
“This product has built upon, perpetuated and benefited from internalized racism and promotes anti-Blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers,” says a Change.org petition attempting to ban the sale of the product.
“Colourism, discrimination based on the colour of your skin, is a direct by-product of racism affecting millions of people today, that fairness creams such as Fair & Lovely continue to advance.”
The bad press Fair & Lovely has received is contrasted somewhat by the work of the Fair & Lovely Foundation, which fights against barriers to women’s education. “Throughout its history, Fair & Lovely has inspired women to go for their dreams, even if they were at odds with what society expected them to do,” the foundation’s website says.
But as many critics have pointed out, that work doesn’t erase the damage done by skin lightening, an industry that upholds racist beauty standards through the use of dangerous chemicals.
Some high-profile Bollywood actresses have also been criticised for talking about racial justice while still endorsing these products. Priyanka Chopra, for instance, called to “end this race war” in reference to George Floyd’s death, and wrote about the responsibility we all have to educate ourselves on racism. She’s also been in ads promoting a skin-lightening moisturiser by Garnier.
Actresses including Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Deepika Padukone and Disha Patani were also called out on social media for talking about the Black Lives Matter movement when they’ve also endorsed skin lighteners.
Beauty influencer Deepica Mutyala, who runs the inclusive cosmetics company Live Tinted, told BuzzFeed that it’s hard to feel an anti-racism post is genuine when it comes from a company that continues to benefit from the sale of skin lightening products.
“Brands that show public support for racial justice yet also sell skin whitening products are extremely hypocritical,” she said. “It’s time for these companies and their retailers to put real action forward, take accountability, and discontinue or ban whitening products from shelves.”
Skin lightening brands like Fair & Lovely make up a booming business. Seventy-seven percent of Nigerian women told the World Health Organisation that they regularly used skin lightening products. In India, it was 61 per cent, and in China, 40.
They also have a large following in the Caribbean. “When you black in Jamaica, nobody see you,” a Black hairstylist named Jody Cooper told Marie Claire, in explaining why she used to lighten her skin.
The racist history of skin lightening
The desire to lighten your skin is inextricably linked to a society where lighter skin confers more advantages — in other words, a racist society.
Colourism means that there’s often an implicit societal preference, both within a a racial community and outside of it, for lighter skin. Dark-skinned Asian men are less likely to be offered jobs than their lighter-skinned counterparts, for instance, and dark-skinned Black girls are three times more likely to be suspended from school than light-skinned Black girls. There are countless of examples of discrimination of this kind.
Like so many other terrible things, colourism is tied to colonialism. European racial theorists writing in the 18th century — white supremacists, in other words — were explicit about their need to enshrine their own people as beautiful.
“They not only wanted the people they called ‘their women’ to be the most beautiful, and ‘their men’ to be the most virile. They wanted ‘their countries’ to have the best politics. So they wanted to have everything better,” she said. “And that included beauty.”
Even though only about two per cent of the world’s population has naturally blond hair, the persistence of Eurocentric beauty ideals mean many young girls grow up thinking they need blond hair and blue eyes to be beautiful.
If the ethical considerations aren’t enough to put you off skin lightening creams, many of them are also dangerous. A CBC Marketplace investigation from this February found that many contain dangerous levels of hydroquinone, mercury and topical corticosteroids.
The CBC investigation didn’t find any of the dangerous chemicals in Fair & Lovely. But in January, two of the company’s products were banned in Norway for containing mercury and hydroquinone, but Unilever suggested the products could be counterfeit.
There are many mainstream beauty products sold in Canada that lighten skin, too. But those are largely marketed as spot treatments, as opposed to products that aim to alter a person’s entire skin tone.
In February, following the CBC Marketplace investigation, Health Canada pulled a number of unauthorised skin lightening products from stores in Quebec and Ontario. But those aren’t the only ones on the market.
The companies that do sell skin-lightening products here, like the Japanese cosmetics brand Shiseido, often use the term “skin brightening.” (For what it’s worth, Shiseido sells its “brightening” products under the name “White Lucent.”)
MURAD’s Start Bright Here brightening treatment, for instance, which is sold at Sephora, uses hydroquinone to “visibly fade dark spots.” In contains a two per cent concentration of that chemical — the upper limit of what’s considered safe, according to Health Canada. Hydroquinone is not recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or people who have had cancer.
Some other ingredients to make sure you avoid in skin lightening creams, or any cosmetics: betamethasone dipropionate and clobetasol propionate, which are both powerful corticosteroids that shouldn’t be used without a prescription, and mercury, which might be hiding on the ingredients list ― under the names calomel, mercuric, mercurous, or mercurio.
Many other companies that would likely face outrage if they tried to market skin lighteners in North America sell them abroad, including Nivea, Vaseline, L’Oréal, Neutrogena, Dove, Pond’s, Garnier, Olay, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson.
HuffPost Canada reached out to these companies, as well as Unilever, for comment. This story will be updated if we receive a response.