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Paradoxically, it’s a dark obsession.

In their desire to appear fairer, women all over the world are resorting to potentially dangerous beauty rituals using their skin tone as the hapless victim. This desire and its association - white is beautiful and dark is unappealing - is an antromorphological legacy for mankind.

Through the eras, as waves of fair-skinned peoples colonised large swathes of dark or dusky skinned populations, the dominance became a textbook historical outcome: power and privilege and all the accompanying symbolisms for these exalted advantages became synonymous with the lighter shades of white.

Across many pockets of the world, women are in daily, even hourly, pursuit of trying to scrub their darker skin tones out of their identity profile. The skin whitening beauty industry is expected to touch $23 billion (Dh84 billion) globally by 2020.

Africa is experiencing a “massive trend of increased use (of skin bleaching), particularly in teenagers and young adults”, said Lester Davids, a physiology professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“The older generation used creams - the new generation uses pills and injectables. The horror is that we do not know what these things do in high concentrations over time in the body.”

Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing market for fairness beauty products, and women from India, The Phillipines, Indonesia and other countries are some of the largest target segments.

Gulf News spoke to a cross-section of people, including industry experts and psychologists and campaigners, to find out what drives this incessant obsession with fair skin.

“It’s a human tendency to yearn for something that we don’t have and fairness products are a classic example of this penchant,” said Nitin Passi, director of India’s cosmetic brand Lotus Herbals, which manufactures a skin whitening and brightening gel creme. On why fair is marketed as attractive, Passi explained it was part of the entire consumer products industry and a reflection of the social thinking of the masses. “While in the West, people prefer to tan their skin, in the Asian markets, it’s absolutely the opposite. Brands in India market their products in a form that enhances the complexion of the consumer,” he said.

But, while the fairness industry is only 40 to 50 years old, the need to improve one’s complexion is some centuries old, the director held. “It dates back to the pre-Mughal era when queens and nobles took care of their skin and it was deep-rooted in every culture to look fair and attractive. And there’s always a fascination to have a skin tone fairer than what one has,” he maintained.

Why do advertising agencies encourage women to aspire for fairer skin, even as a vast number of women in India have a range of skin tones? Passi says, “Brands only respond to the cultural set-up. We do not have the power to change the thinking pattern of the consumers. We only respond to society’s requirements. So, if at all there needs to be a change, it has to happen at the educational level in schools and colleges; not the other way around.”

Commenting on campaigns by some activist groups, Passi felt that in a democracy, there could be outrage against anything. “I see no reason why people should run campaigns against fairness creams. Brands are only addressing the needs and requirements of those who aspire for a fairer skin,” he stressed.

Kavitha Emmanuel, founder and director, Women of Worth, Chennai, India, says the movement works against the bias towards skin colour. Says Emmanuel, “On realising how skin colour was deeply damaging the self worth of several girls, we started this crusade in 2009, challenging the belief that beauty of women is determined by the fairness of her skin.”

“There are several reasons why people are biased towards dark skin tones. While it began during the times of Aryans and Dravidians, followed by the colonial hangover; today, we have the all-pervasive caste system and the rich-poor divide. While the poor work in the blazing heat and get tanned and darker, the rich have the luxury of staying indoors and do not have to toil in the sun,” she continued.

Emmanuel said the colour divide is so much a part of the Indian system that even when a child is born, apart from knowing the gender, the next thing people want to know is the colour of the child. “It is also such a common phenomenon for parents to tell their children, ‘I told you not to play in the sun; now look, you’ve become so dark!’ The important point here is: why are we still tolerating this bias, which is not right,” she emphasised.

When she began her campaign, Emmanuel found many men coming forward and saying they too faced colour bias. “Most discussed the indiscrimination they suffered during job interviews, because of their skin colour. Even though the extent and manner may vary, in general, women have to bear the brunt more, as beauty is given a lot of importance, which is tantamount to being fair.

“This fairness bit is blatantly propagated in matrimonial advertisements and for that both boys and mothers are to be blamed, because seeking a fair bride is their major criteria. The media too plays a negative role, as it endorses this belief by showing ads of whitening cream products.

On the other hand, brands allocate a large portion of their marketing budget to get celebrity endorsements. Since celebrities have a huge influence on the nation’s youth, they have the ability to turn things around. We hope they respect and support such causes and act in a responsible manner,” she hoped.

Emmanuel said they have come a long way in the last seven years. “We were a motley group of volunteers who believed in the cause, but through our efforts and campaigns, we are trying to make colour discrimination a topic of national and global concern,” she said.

The psychology of the fairness obsession

“Commercialism doesn’t care about people’s feelings nor for their self-worth.” Dr Tara Wyne, Dubai-based clinical psychologist

When it comes to having fairer, brighter skin, numerous women around the world are guilty of going out of their way to try and get a shade or a few lighter.

Hundreds of products that promise lighter and clearer skin are now flooding the market, with social media influencers promoting the effects of regular application.

The obsession with fairer skin unfortunately stems from ideas in our world regarding the privilege and distinction of being fair skinned, Dr Tara Wyne, Clinical Psychologist and director at Lighthouse Arabia told Gulf News.

There are constructs around the superiority, success and prestige associated with lighter skin. All this certainly influences the demand for cosmetic products that would lighten skin and perhaps make people feel as if they will be perceived as more attractive, appealing and acceptable,” she explained.

These products relate to the most “primitive instincts” among people that by lightening their skin, they can influence how well liked and wanted they are, added Dr Wyne.

She pointed out that women are generally conditioned to focus on their aesthetic appeal and many rarely see themselves as “good enough.”

Many women work hard and spend generously to look and feel better about themselves, with some linking their satisfaction with their looks to their happiness. “Fairer skin is just another metric we measure ourselves by,” said Dr Wyne.

Is the answer in history books?

“Typically in history, nations with fairer skin colonised nations with darker skin. They assumed power, enslaved these peoples and set up an age-old assumption that powerful people are fair skinned or white,” explained Dr Wyne.

People, Dr Wyne said, are inherently attracted to power, choice and freedom. “Fair skin became synonymous with self- determination, liberty, achievement and status. People with darker skin pursue fairer skin originally to seek freedom and now to achieve the status of conventional beauty,” she added.

“However, in our world today, social media plays a huge role in setting the trends.”

Many influencers, have a clear ideology about beauty, and they embody and sell a vision for their audience. “They are often sponsored by beauty moguls and cosmetic companies. Commercialism doesn’t care about people’s feelings nor for their self-worth. It will undermine their birth right or their skin colour in order to persuade and convince this audience that they need to be told what is beautiful and appealing,” said Dr Wyne.

She added that many influencers often teach us to distrust our own beliefs and instincts about beauty and wellbeing because they want us to rely on them to tell us what to think and feel.

What is the solution?

Just like many other global stereotypes, education and awareness is the first step.

“Firstly, we have to decouple skin colour from concepts such as beauty, happiness, superiority and success. This has to be done through education and work on self-acceptance and self-love,” advised Dr Wyne.

She pointed out the “mainstream narrative” has to change from emulating the western nations to retrieving the cultures own traditions and values.

“Home-grown cultural icons and success stories should be celebrated and act as role models for beauty and lifestyle,” said Dr Wyne.

The starting point can be with children and young people, who are most impressionable and must be taught to value their own skin and birth right.

Hear it from a dermatologist

Dr Chandrashekar, a practicing skin specialist, says, “American humourist Jean Kerr once said, “I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being skin deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?”

A fair point. Science tells us that what makes a person’s looks appealing isn’t a whole lot of positive or specific attributes, but simply less of them to process by an observer. Thus, symmetrical and proportionate features and an unblemished skin are, quite literally, easy on the eye.

Would those criteria apply to the argument that fair skin, therefore, is more appealing than dark skin? Is it a fundamental truth? Evidence suggests that – for the subcontinent, at least – it is more a conditioning and mindset of multiple causes (such as casteism and colonialism) perpetuated over time, and down through generations. The resultant insecurities are precisely what advertisements of skin fairness treatments feed into, which only results in more questions: do these work? And more importantly, are they safe? And what stance must a dermatologist take (if any) on this complex issue, that involves social/peer/family pressure, ethics and safety of treatments?

Patients seeking advice for ‘fairness’ treatment fall into two categories:

A: Those seeking to lighten their innate complexion (i.e., the one they were born with)

B: Those seeking to lighten acquired pigmentation – this would include:

1. Specific ‘islands’ of excess pigmentation that stand out from surrounding skin, such as melasma (the cheekbone pigmentation that commonly appears on the face of women during or after pregnancy), and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (wounds, scars and other lesions that heal with excess pigmentation).

2. Diffuse pigmentation of large areas of skin (tanning) resulting from long hours outdoors without sun protection.

For those in Category A the simple truth is – if any product claims to be able to do that, at best it is more likely to simply lighten tans and even out the tone and complexion, with less likelihood of actual lightening of basic complexion; and at worst it possibly contains ingredients that are in higher-than-allowed percentages, or that are outright banned (the so-called ‘industrial-strength bleaches’.

Those in Category B do have genuine concerns and these are more likely to visit a dermatologist’s clinic. Based on the lesion’s duration, intensity and area involved treatment approaches will differ. The person’s daily routine vis a vis sun exposure (sedentary vs field work in occupation/housebound vs outdoor in recreation) would also need to be factored in.

The use of an appropriate sun protection cream is of paramount importance, its SPF value and thickness of application once again dictated by duration of exposure and accessory factors such as intensive perspiration or swimming, in which case it also needs to be water-resistant. A sunblock serves two important needs: the prevents existing pigmented lesions from worsening and sustains every level of improvement (two weeks of good work can be neutralised by one careless hour of exposure).

As regards specific treatments most dermatologists (except the more trigger-happy ones) would commence treatment with simple topicals such as a low percentage hydroquinone or kojic acid, either solo or in combination with alpha hydroxy acids or tretinoin creams to effect some peeling and exfoliation to hasten the process.

The more stubborn the lesion and the deeper the pigmentation, the more in-depth or aggressive the treatment – such as microdermabrasion or even regular dermabrasion – that can produce aesthetically pleasing results provided they’re done in the right hands.

A more specific algorithmic approach that suits all cases is beyond the scope of this article, which is only to highlight an important factor: doctors can try and help reduce or even eliminate acquired pigmentation but not lighten an innately dark skin. For one really illuminating take on the subject that isn’t ‘anti-white’ but encourages people to look beyond colour, visit http://womenofworth.in/dark-is-beautiful/

(Dr Chandrashekhar has had over three decades of experience as a specialist dermatologist in Dubai, where he continues to practice as a visiting consultant at the New Apollo Polyclinic in Karama).

 First person comment 

'Beauty is effortless'

By Janice Ponce de Leon, Staff Reporter

'The fairer, the prettier'. I overheard a mum say this to another mum as they were chatting about babies.

Somehow, her comment resonates with many Asian people and their specific standard of beauty, which really has nothing to do with a person’s “features” but something to do with his or her skin tone.

It is no surprise then that skin whitening is a big business in Asia. Go to any grocery or shopping mall and tonnes of products on skin whitening, lightening, and brightening are on offer be it as a bar soap, lotion, serum, capsule, or laser treatment.

In the Philippines, this skewed standard of beauty could be because of the various influences on our people. We were colonised by Spain for 333 years, by the Americans for 48 years and by the Japanese for three years.

We were known for our lahing kayumanggi (brown race). But not everyone is brown-skinned. Our skin tone relatively varied depending on where we lived. Those living in the highlands and the cities traditionally have fairer skin than those who live near coastal and agricultural areas. Those who descended from inter-marriages during the colonial years had fair skin and were the mestizos and mestizas. Mixed marriages also happened among the Filipino-Chinese.

It doesn’t also help that the media perpetuates this belief that having fair skin is more beautiful. And it’s not just in the Philippines, mind you, but in most of Asia.

But just as most of Asia is obsessed with fair skin, most Westerners also would kill to get a tan. If the Asian market is flooded with whitening treatments, tanning treatments in the Western market are not far behind. Tanning lotions, tanning beds and the like are a big craze in the States. Even Kim Kardashian has a team to make sure her perfect tan stays on perfectly.

I guess it’s just human nature to want to be what you’re not—and if you have the money to transform yourself into your own standard of beauty, then perhaps it’s nobody’s problem?

Growing up, I remember my grandmother telling us that we’re beautiful just as we are. She used to say ‘Beauty is effortless.’ So that to me became my standard of beauty.

I don’t know if it’s the same for all households. But then if it was, the whitening industry would not take off to be the behemoth is it is now, wouldn’t it?

What women say

Yara Rayan, medical student, Egyptian, lives in Dubai

“I don’t use skin whitening creams or peels. Being a medical student, I know the dangers of these products. I use essential skincare products and get my eight hours sleep so my skin does not look dull. I feel the obsession with fairness has got something to do with insecurity and girls comparing themselves with models in ads. Beauty is not about skin tone. It is your inner beauty and confidence and not being judgmental about yourself.”


Amona Yousif, food safety professional, Sudanese, lives in Dubai

“I don’t use anything to make my skin fair. I am an African and I am happy with my skin tone. When I buy skin products I make sure not to buy the ones with hydroquinone and I have seen people who have damaged their skin by using such products. I am very skeptical about whitening creams. I think some ingredients in them are carcinogenic.”


Filipina sales lady (name withheld), lives in Dubai

“For me there’s nothing wrong if you want to be beautiful or have fair skin so long as you’re doing it the right way and are using vetted products. This was my biggest regret when I used an Asian cream that I bought here in Dubai. It boasts of giving fair and smooth skin but it did otherwise.

I had an allergic reaction and my face swelled up and became itchy and inflamed. I didn’t really want to be extremely fair; I just wanted to get rid of my pimple scars to boost my confidence. But instead of doing that, it made matters worse. I also tried taking whitening capsules before but I realised that if I stop taking them, my natural skin tone would resurface. So I stopped everything altogether.


Filipina nurse, 29, lives in Abu Dhabi

“I used to take Glutathione intravenously administered by my friend who is also a nurse in the Philippines. Glutha is best used to detoxify the liver but I liked its side-effect—supple, fair, glowing skin. But since it’s illegal here, I tried taking Glutha capsules although they’re not as effective as the ones administered via IV that goes direct to the bloodstream.

However, it became unsustainable for me so I now am just using whitening soap. I haven’t reached my desired skin tone but it’s more even now. My pimple marks have also faded away. I want to have fair skin to boost my self-confidence. The social pressure to have fair skin be considered “beautiful” is too much.”


Nurse who administers Glutathione via IV: Aiesha, Nurse, 39, lives in Dubai

“I offer the shots to people I know only because I know it doesn’t have any bad side-effects. What it does is liver detoxification and as a result, the skin becomes supple and glowing. If your body is free from toxins and you’re in the pink of health, it will show through your skin.

That’s my motivation. However, many prefer the other effect which is skin whitening. I have inquiries from Filipinos, Indians and Russians. Sometimes it takes three or four boxes of product application before the client gets his or her desired skin tone. I tried it as well and I am pleased with the result. I have a weakness for fair skin because that’s the common mentality of Filipinos. I don’t know where we got it from but that’s just how we view things growing up.”


Anita Agarwal, social worker, lives in India

“When relatives came visiting, I would hide behind a door” “My sister is very fair and I have a dusky complexion. So, during our growing up days, our parents used to buy bright shades of clothes for her and lighter and dull shades for me.

I always pined to wear vibrant clothes, but seldom could. Our relatives often teased me saying, ‘Where did you get your skin colour from?’ No wonder, when they came visiting, I would hide behind doors and curtains. At one point of time, I tried skin fairness creams and soaps to look more attractive and acceptable. With time, I realised that my goal in life was to be a good human being, irrespective of my skin tone.”


Anisha, household helper, lives in India

“I have a wheatish complexion. Because my two sisters were relatively fair, I bore the brunt of offensive remarks and was often told, ‘Who will marry you when you grow up?’ I was the brightest of all siblings, including two brothers, and was extremely good in studies.

But, this too went against me; I was forced to quit studies and married off at the age of 15. I have four children, and unfortunately, my elder daughter is also of a darker hue. I saw history repeat itself when my husband began taunting her. I never had any say when she too was forced to marry early. I pity her more because even though born and brought up in Delhi, she is married into a family that lives in a village.”

Mithun, male, student, lives in India

“I am the only child of my parents, who are both dark complexioned. My classmates call me Mithun Chakraborty ( a Bollywood actor with dark skin) and implore me to use a particular brand of men’s cream, saying I will then look like Shah Rukh Khan.

I have never paid heed to their suggestions, but it hurts to be singled out. Fortunately, my teachers have never shown any such bias and I am their favourite student. There were times when I did feel depressed, but when I learn of people who want to tan and darken their ksin to look appealing, it boosts my morale.”

The numbers

Estimated worth of skin lightening industry by 2020 according to Global Industry Analysts

Chinese women use skin lightening products

Of women in India use them

in Nigeria

(World Health Organisation)


“Because of our history with apartheid, most black people associate being white with superiority and privilege, and as a result when a black person is light-skinned, you are perceived to be better off, somewhat privileged and definitely beautiful.”
- Mbali, a 28-year-old student in Johannesburg, South Africa

“It’s not something that started today, it’s an age-old addiction that dates back to the era of slavery. People have been programmed to believe lighter is better. A re-education is needed.”
- Dr. Rasheedah Adesokan, skincare specialist in Lagos, Nigeria


Skin creams are by far the most popular form of bleaching.

They work by inhibiting production of melanin, the pigment produced by exposure from the sun.

Ingredients include hydroquinone, steroids, lead and mercury.

Such creams may be safe in specific doses for a limited amount of time. But they may be dangerous when used for extended periods or in high concentrations, say experts.

“What you find is that people use the products for much longer than they’re supposed to and so they start getting those really harmful side effects,” said Dr. Rasheedah Adesokan, a Nigerian skincare expert.

Some companies in Africa have started labelling their products as organic in order to reassure users, said Dr. Isima Sobande, a Lagos dermatologist.

“Most of the time it’s a label to encase some unwholesome ingredients,” she said.

Side effects

At first, people may be pleased as their skin starts to lighten from the cream, and “glow”.

But to maintain the lighter shade people have to stick to the bleaching regime, says Adesokan.

Over time the skin thins and becomes “mottled” and “patchy”.

“It’s been irritated, so there is redness and you can see green veins,” she says.

In the worst cases, people develop ochronosis - a build-up of acid that paradoxically makes the skin appear much darker.

Using creams with steroids can also lead to increased hair growth and stretch marks.

These creams are widely available. In some locations, over-the-counter anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, steroid creams are used as whiteners.

Glutathione, the new craze

The latest innovation is a compound called glutathione, taken in the form of injection or in pills, which are sold in markets or by retailers online.

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant sometimes used in cancer therapy, said Lester Davids, physiology professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

It has the side effect of making skin whiter, said Davids, adding that it is being marketed as a safer alternative to the creams.

In recent years, “injecting started to take over as a skin lightening submarket,” said Davids.

The problem with glutathione, as with skin bleaching creams, is regulation. But unlike with creams, there is a lack of studies on the impact of long-term use of the new product.

“Using glutathione is not illegal - just be very cautious,” said Davids, adding that the scale of the risk is not currently know.-AFP