Oscar Holland, CNN Editors: Meera Senthilingam, Eliza Anyangwe; Design: Gabrielle Smith; Researchers: Lizzy Yee, Gawon Bae and Mengchen Zhang; Photo editor: Jennifer Arnow
In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement amplified calls for racial justice in the US and beyond, a succession of corporate announcements signaled what appeared to be a watershed moment for the cosmetics industry.
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.
Johnson & Johnson announced it would stop selling skin whitening products altogether in Asia and the Middle East. L’Oréal promised to remove words like “whitening” and “fair” from its ranges. So did Unilever, which also bowed to growing pressure by renaming its controversial South Asia-focused brand, Fair & Lovely, to Glow & Lovely.
Nivea’s owner, Beiersdorf AG, also distanced itself from the terms “whitening” and “fair,” telling Allure magazine that it was carrying out an “in-depth review” into its “product offering and marketing approach.” Last year the German company told CNN it had conducted the review and, taking extensive consumer research into account, would cease communications that “do not embrace the complexions of our diverse consumer base.”
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.
L’Oréal’s Singapore platform, for instance, continues to actively promote creams and serums with “powerful whitening” properties, while its site for Indian customers stocks a “White Activ” moisturizer. In Hong Kong, where the Chinese term for whitening literally combines the words “white” and “beautiful,” the brand recommends using a whitening mask as part of its “tips for a peachy complexion,” while in mainland China, recent social media ads offered a “whitening miracle” and “mild whitening, like the wind of spring blowing across your face.” In Japan, an equivalent term “bihaku,” which too combines the words “white” and “beautiful,” is also used to describe and sell products.
Unilever also appeared to be saying different things to different demographic groups — even within the same region. Take one of its most popular skincare brands, Pond’s, whose English US website is free from the word “whitening,” while the Spanish version operated an entire website section openly branded as “whitening” until CNN reached out for comment about the page. In Thailand, meanwhile, customers can buy a range of products marked “White Beauty” including sunscreen and facial cleanser.
And while Fair & Lovely may now be called Glow & Lovely, lighter-skinned South Asian models are still widely used on its packaging, and Unilever continues to offer customers in India an “Intense Whitening” face wash via its Lakmé brand. In the Philippines, the conglomerate has stuck with the name Block & White for a range that, although marketed as a sunblock, has until recent years boasted of its “intensive whitening” properties and “5-in-1 Whitening Essentials” formula.
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.
Others appear to be making good on their promises. Online searches conducted by CNN on websites operated by Johnson & Johnson, which dropped its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines from Asian and Middle Eastern markets in 2020, found no examples of the word “whitening.” Johnson & Johnson did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
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.
However, products sold in India were still marketed as “whitening” and “extra whitening.” Nivea’s Malaysian website also continued to have a “whitening” section, with a fair-skinned model used to appeal to buyers in the southeast Asian country. These pages and products were all removed after CNN contacted Beiersdorf AG. In Nigeria, however, products continue to offer “natural fairness.”
It isn’t hard to decipher why a gap between words and actions may persist. By the company’s own account: “Nivea products with whitening ingredients remain our biggest sellers throughout Asia.”
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.”
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.
Although multinationals’ skin whitening creams do not typically contain toxic chemicals such as mercury, Adbi’s research suggests that they still help create a market for more potent, cheaper locally made products that often contain harmful ingredients.
“(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).
In 2017, Dove apologized after posting a social media ad showing a Black woman removing her brown shirt to reveal a White woman in a lighter-colored shirt underneath. That same year Nivea was called out for billboards in Ghana and other West African countries promising “visibly fairer skin.” In a statement given to NPR at the time, the company said its campaign was in “no way meant to demean or glorify any person’s needs or preferences in skin care,” adding that the product advertising was designed to “protect the skin from long-term sun damage and premature skin-ageing.”
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.
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