"28 yrs, veg wkg in Gulf as Mgr seeks fair, homely, b'ful girl"; "Wanted fair educated lady for h'some 26/178 engineer"; "Fair professional women with family value for grad. from Berkeley Univ. No dowry"...If caste is less of a criterion for finding a life partner in contemporary India, fairness of the skin - mostly women's - remains a sure value on the marriage market, sometimes even more prized than professional skills or wealth.
This may explain why so much effort is invested by women folk to lighten their complexion. "In earlier times, queens and women from the ruling classes applied pastes made out of natural products such as almonds, pistachio, saffron and herbs on their faces, whilst others used whatever they got their hands on: domestic cleaning products, vinegar, tooth paste..." asserts Arun Singh (name changed), doctor and owner of a skin clinic in Kochi, Kerala. "What is new today is that they purchase chemical bleaching creams produced by local skin care companies and, more recently, western beauty multinationals."
Indeed, this past decade or so, L'Oreal, Revlon, Shiseido, Clinique, Yves Saint-Laurent and others are putting their "skin science" to the use of women in the developing world suffering from a complex of being "too dark". But mind you, this is no charity or social service they are offering. In India alone, according to some estimates, the fairness business represents the lion's share of a domestic skin care industry weighing about US$ 300 million and enjoying a growth rate of 15 per cent per year. Yes, skin bleaching is booming in India, and these American and European beauty lords are ferociously fighting each other and the local Indian beauty industry for their portion of this juicy market.
This fratricidal war has induced another recent phenomenon: the flooding of the media by skin bleaching advertisements, leading to a sharp rise in the level of consumption. Hindustan Lever Limited's (HLL) Fair & Lovely advertisements are a case in point. The advertisements, which clearly associate dark skin with romantic and professional failure, and fair skin with success, had to be taken off air after protests by activists and social groups.
"In the past 10 years, our hospital has seen a significant increase in the number of consultations for skin disorders," says Dr Col. I S Parmar, dermatologist at Prakash Hospital, Noida (Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border). The fact is that these bleaches are not only based on a sexist and racist concept, they are also toxic!
President of the Indian Association of Dermatologists, Venereologists and Leprologists (IADVL) in Delhi, Anil Gangoo witnesses everyday the health hazards caused by these products. Some of his clients have encountered unwanted secondary effects or didn't obtain the desired results. He shares his concern: "These products are dangerous and what is most worrying is that at least half the young urban girls are using them, influenced as they are by ads promoting the idea that a fair complexion is worthier than a dark one."
Pramila Pandhe knows a thing or two about ads promoting a lighter skin. Vice-president of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), which counts a membership of 7.6 million women, in 2002, she lead a one-year campaign against an HLL advertisement. "The ad showed a father whining because he has a daughter instead of a son, and on top of it, she's jobless. Next sequence, she applies a skin whitener, becomes fair and beautiful, and for this reason, she is hired as an air hostess." relates Pandhe. Feminist organizations say the ad is not only sexist but also dishonest: "If these products worked, 90 per cent of the Indian girls would be white!" argues Pandhe, who admits to being concerned by the trend.
A trend that is all the more alarming because the Indian cosmetic market looks like the Wild West, observes Gangoo: "Nothing is controlled; producers are not compelled to indicate the content of their bleachers on the label. And if they do so, neither the quantity nor the proportion needs to be specified." In fact, many of these 'cosmetics', harmless in appearance, contain products deriving from such substances as corticoids, mercury or hydroquinone, which if absorbed in big quantities can prove fatal. According to the eminent Jamaican dermatologist, Neil Persadsingh, author of 'Acne in Black Women' (1999), certain whitening products even contain steroids! Besides, the principle of most creams consists in eliminating the melanin present in the skin, which does not only give the skin its colour but also protects it from ultra-violet rays, responsible for skin cancer.
IADVL says the current situation is unacceptable, and condemns the lack of a law to regulate sale to whoever wants a bleach, be it a five year old. "Actually, these are drugs," says Gangoo, "that are sold as cosmetics, to avoid legal control." His association has tried many a time to draw the government's attention to this issue. The authorities promise to look into it, but never move an inch. "The cosmetic lobbies are very powerful," explains Gangoo.
Nevertheless, the problem is certainly one of public concern. Despite sexy packaging and spicy slogans, bleaching products can lead to many health hazards, which are sometimes irreversible. Savor a few potential consequences listed by several dermatology departments in France, Senegal, Togo and Burkina Faso: diabetes, hypertension, acne, bone problems, hyper hairiness, renal insufficiency, skin cancer, disturbance of the menstrual cycle, premature ageing of the skin, eczema, cardio-vascular and respiratory problems, pimples, mycoses and other skin infections. None of which are mentioned on the label. The creams are absorbed by the skin, and then enter the bloodstream, reaching the organs - thus creating hormonal disorders and other problems, as if you were eating poison.
The irony of the story is that some users have complained that when they stopped applying the cream, their skin became darker than it was before starting the treatment. That's what happened to Sima, a beautiful 25-year-old secretary from Delhi who "had always wished to have a lighter complexion to increase my chances of finding a good husband". Unaware of the risk she was taking, a year after she began using a whitening cream, her face started to become multicolored. When she stopped applying the cream, her face darkened all of a sudden, and she began to get pimples...
Of course, with it's billion plus population, India represents a destination of choice for the whitening industry. But she isn't the only one. In most non-white countries - more than three-quarters of the planet - skin care companies are making their presence felt. Allen Counter can testify. Professor of neurology and neuro-psychology at Harvard University, he is also an expert on mercury effects. His research led him to surprising findings: by studying mercury poisoning, he discovered that women from regions as different and as far from one another as Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Tanzania, were showing similar symptoms of mercury poisoning. After further examinations, he found out about the common practice at the root of their health problem: the use of whitening creams.