On June 3, US skincare brand Olay posted a message in support of a newly trendy topic for cosmetic companies: racial justice.
“Black Lives Matter,” the caption reads. “We stand against racism and injustice. We believe Black people should have the right to live without fear.”
Olay and its parent company, consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, also committed $5 million to an anti-racism fund. (Procter & Gamble reported annual sales of more than $67 billion in 2019.)
But a few days later, the Olay Malaysia Instagram account sent a very different message. In a repost of her April 15 sponcon, a smiling Malaysian influencer wearing a white hijab promotes a product called “White Radiance Light Perfecting Essence" — a product Olay says provides “dual whitening action” for “luminous fairness" and "inhibits melanin formation in the deepest layer of skin."
The product also promises to inhibit the production of melanin — the natural pigment that gives human skin its color — and banish “dulling yellow skin” to produce a “smoother, fresher, whiter and more translucent complexion,” according to Olay's website in the Philippines. It contains niacinamide, which is used for fading hyperpigmentation, among other uses.
“How each person defines beauty is a choice. ... Some may like using tanners or makeup to achieve a darker skin tone.”
“I see total hypocrisy,” said Joanne Rondilla, a professor of sociology at San Jose State University whose research has focused on skin lightening in the Philippines and who has worked in the skincare industry herself. “The optimist in me says I appreciate the sentiment, but none of this matters if you’re not going to put an actual plan in place.”
An Olay spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company, which does not sell skin whitening products in the US, believes that there needs to be a “more diverse and inclusive standard of beauty,” comparing its skin lightening products to tanners or makeup.
“How each person defines beauty is a choice. For example, some may like using tanners or makeup to achieve a darker skin tone, while others are looking to even dark spots and preserve their natural skin tone,” the spokesperson said. “In Asia, where these products are predominantly sold, many people describe their skin tone as ‘yellowing’ as they age and are seeking products to help restore their natural skin tone.”
Olay is one of the many leading American and European beauty brands that sell skin whitening products, mostly to customers in Asia and Africa, while proclaiming their support of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. As the purchasing power of consumer classes in countries like India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, and Ghana has grown, skin whitening has become a multibillion-dollar market, dominated by multinational conglomerates like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oréal, and Johnson & Johnson.
Olay was not the only brand to publicly support Black Lives Matter while also selling skin lightening products.
Johnson & Johnson, another consumer products giant, also sells fairness creams in Asia (Fairness in India typically means fair skin). The company’s skincare brand Neutrogena sells a product called "Fine Fairness Overnight Brightening Cream" in its Malaysian online store that includes “white lily extract” to achieve “long lasting fairness.” According to Neutrogena’s website, one of the product’s benefits is that it “restores skin’s natural whitening power.” The brand said on June 2 on Instagram that it would donate $200,000 to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, adding, “We have a responsibility to use our voice to speak up against systemic racism.”
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson said the company has decided to discontinue the Fine Fairness line, which was available in India and Southeast Asia among other markets, adding, “This product uses a retinol formula to lighten stubborn dark spots — it does not bleach the skin.” The company said it made the decision based on conversations with retailers.
Products aimed at lightening skin tones range from skin bleaching creams, often using a chemical banned in several countries called hydroquinone, to products branded as natural or nonprescription strength including kojic acid, licorice root, and bearberry, according to Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC.
“In many places outside the US, questionable ingredients such as corticosteroids, mercury, hydrogen peroxide, and glutathione may be found in lightening agents,” she said. “These products have the potential to damage and thin out the skin.”
Many countries, including in Asia and Africa, have looser regulations on nonprescription skincare products than the US and the EU, and not every country requires cosmetics companies to disclose the ingredients of their products. So it’s tough to tell which products contain what skin lightening ingredients, even when the products promise to lighten skin tone. But advocates say that even marketing that references skin whitening is harmful because it drives demand for more dangerous products and reinforces the notion that whiter is better. In the US and Europe, companies are more likely to advertise products using words like “brightening” or “spot reducing.”
And whitening is not just for women — Garnier, a brand owned by French cosmetics giant L'Oréal, has a dedicated page on its Indian online shop for whitening products for men, including one called "PowerWhite Fairness Face Wash." An ad for the product promises to make your skin one tone lighter by counteracting pollution. Garnier USA said on Instagram on June 2, “We stand with the Black community and against racial injustice,” and the same day, Blackout Tuesday, posted a black square to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. L'Oréal did not respond to requests for comment.
Consumer products giant Unilever owns one of India’s best-known skin whitening brands, Fair and Lovely. On June 3, the company posted on Instagram, “We have a responsibility for racial justice,” saying it had pledged “more than $1 million to date” in donations to social justice organizations and activists.
The post was flooded with angry comments calling the company hypocritical.
"Anyone else out there sick and tired of being told that fair=lovely?"
“Stop making and selling fairness and skin lightening products across the world,” one person wrote. “You have done enough damage to us dark skinned Indian women. Just stop.”
Shivani Priya, an Indian fashion designer who commented on the post, told BuzzFeed News that as someone who previously used Fair and Lovely, "I can tell you that it doesn’t work and it promotes the inherent racism that still exists in our country.”
On June 9, the author and TV host Padma Lakshmi chimed in too. “For years I’ve been saying that ‘Fair & Lovely’ needs to pack their fake cosmetics and GO!!” she wrote on Instagram. “Anyone else out there sick and tired of being told that fair=lovely? Because I sure as hell am.
“I’ve been hearing that crap since my girlhood and it did a number on my self-esteem," she added.
Unilever did not return repeated requests for comment.
Critics of skin whitening say the practice is not a personal choice, but rather deeply rooted in colonial history and viewed as necessary to improve job, marriage, and social prospects — even at the expense of skin health. Skin lightening products can contain mercury and other harmful chemicals that can do lasting damage. Marketing for skin lightening products — whether or not they contain harmful ingredients — often casts lighter skin tones as a beauty ideal.
Consumer advocates in Asia and Africa have spent years protesting against skin lightening. Last year, Amira Adawe, founder of the US-based Beautywell Project, led a campaign that persuaded Amazon to stop the sale of some skin whitening products on its platform. And in recent years, countries like Ghana, Rwanda, and Ivory Coast have banned certain kinds of skin whiteners that include ingredients like mercury, hydroquinone, and steroids. Some skin whitening products are also banned or heavily regulated in Australia, Japan, and the EU.
"Brands that show public support for racial justice yet also sell skin whitening products are extremely hypocritical"
Alex Malouf, a former Procter & Gamble executive in the Middle East, told BuzzFeed News that public pressure hasn’t been as effective as it could be.
“None of these companies has said we’re going to discontinue these products, despite the reputational challenge,” he said. “It speaks to the size of the market. It’s huge. What’s going to make them reconsider? Possibly shareholder pressure? Possibly public sentiment?”
In some parts of Asia, skin whitening is so ubiquitous that it’s tough to find drugstore products that do not have a whitening component. Under public pressure, some companies have begun using euphemisms for such products including “brightening,” “melanin-inhibiting” and “dark spot correction,” experts say. One Olay product called Olay Whitening Moisture body wash promises to whiten skin "just like a pearl."
What’s clear is that the backlash to these products is growing, including within the industry itself. Deepica Mutyala, a beauty influencer with more than 280,000 followers on Instagram and founder of the cosmetics brand Live Tinted, told BuzzFeed News that whitening products should be banned.
“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.” ●