Skin whitening: A lucrative business indeed, but at what cost to the consumer?

Elaborate marketing campaigns and an unhealthy social obsession with lighter skin tones continues to generate sales and new customers

It is no secret that the fairness cream industry in Pakistan, like in many other countries, has been subject to both popularity and controversy. For decades, these products have been marketed as skin-lightening or skin-whitening products which have promoted the harmful beauty standards within society and the issue of colourism.

According to a report by the World Health Organization, “The skin-lightening industry is one of the fastest growing beauty industries worldwide and is estimated to be worth US$ 31.2 billion by 2024.” The report further stated that the popularity of this industry is mainly in Asian countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and India to name a few.

Manufacturers of fairness creams in the country have employed assertive advertising strategies to market their products, often projecting fair-skinned individuals as more confident, booming, and attractive. These campaigns, while boosting sales, have simultaneously reinforced colourism, contributing to a complex beauty landscape.

 One of the most common products is Unilever’s Glow & Lovely, which has been in the spotlight for marketing these beauty standards via its campaigns. Profit reached out to Unilever Pakistan to know more about their sales in recent years, but they refused to comment. 

With that being said, Unilever’s Annual Report and Accounts 2022, “Beauty & Wellbeing represents 20% of Unilever’s total turnover and 24% of its underlying operating profit,” adding that its Skin Care portfolio is particularly strong in the Asian countries.

To give the readers an overview of Unilever Pakistan’s extensive presence in the country, we have highlighted a few pointers from the information available. During the six-month period ending June 2023, the company reported a 44.6% increase in sales (18.7 billion rupees as of June 2023). Not only that, double-digit inflation weakened consumers’ purchasing power. Cost efficiency measures and pricing improvements led to 55.2% EPS growth. 

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Furthermore, Unilever Beauty & Wellbeing President Fernando Fernandez stated in the report that brands like Dove, Vaseline, Sunsilk, CLEAR, TRESemmé, Pond’s and Glow & Lovely, make up half of its turnover and are key to accelerating value creation.

 “We are focused on growing these brands by channeling investment to our most important markets,” he stated.

Profit also reached out to Faiza Cream, owned by Poonia Brothers, to learn more about how the brand became popular with people and celebrities endorsing its products. There was no representative available to comment.  

While celebrities and influencers have played a role in endorsing these products, some have faced backlash for their contribution to the promotion of harmful beauty ideals. As the country progresses towards embracing a more holistic understanding of beauty, it remains crucial for both businesses and individuals to align their practices with these evolving perspectives.

 Since both companies were not available to comment, Profit asked an advertising/marketing professional about the influence of advertising these products and a dermatologist about the harmful effects of these beauty products.

 The true cost of chasing “beauty” 

The fairness cream industry has come under the radar for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and exacerbating discrimination. Many fairness creams contain ingredients like hydroquinone, steroids, and mercury, which can harm skin health and overall well-being. This has prompted calls for more stringent regulations to safeguard consumers from potential harm. Dermatologist and Founder of Cleo Clinical Care, Dr Amna Ahmar stated these ingredients are often included in these products without proper testing.

She stated that in Pakistan there is a lack of understanding of skin ailments, and many skin pigmentation disorders are often misunderstood and labelled as mere differences in skin tone. People fail to recognize these disorders as actual medical conditions. This is why most people opt for the easy way out and resort to the use of any product that states “whitening” on their boxes.

 “In numerous countries, the absence of comprehensive drug regulatory measures to scrutinize and assess listed ingredients has resulted in individuals inadvertently selecting products containing harmful components,” Dr Amna told Profit.

In Pakistan and across South Asia, the issue of skin colour has long been intertwined with societal pressures and deeply rooted cultural norms. It continues to be a prevailing norm where fairer skin is equated with beauty, with the perception that a fair-skinned individual is somehow ‘better-looking’, which is a regressive and problematic notion to be present in society in this day and age.

  From billboards to TVCs, we are shown that lighter skin is often associated with beauty, success, and social status. This has led to numerous women in the country and across the region to turn towards harmful skin whitening products. This has led to a thriving industry of creams and treatments promising skin lightening, exploiting people’s insecurities.

 “There exists a common belief that these products can resolve a wide range of skin issues. The absence of robust primary healthcare standards exacerbates the situation, prompting individuals to resort to skin-whitening products as a quick fix for enhancing their appearance,” Dr Amna said. 

She further stated that, the ultimate goal when considering beauty standards is to make sure we achieve a healthy and clearer skin with minimum usage of harmful products.

 According to The Minamata Convention on Mercury, as mentioned in the WHO report, “there should be a maximum threshold of 1 mg/kg (1 ppm) for mercury content in skin lightening products, numerous cosmetic items exceed this limit to enhance their whitening impact.” 

This was further put into perspective by Dr Amna, who said that as people are slowly becoming aware of this, mercury has come under scrutiny for its adverse effects. Despite the permissible threshold, adherence to this standard is frequently lacking in several nations.

  According to Dr Amna the incorporation of steroids in these products can yield a range of unfavorable outcomes, ranging from encompassing skin atrophy, the growth of facial hair, skin thinning, the appearance of stretch marks, to the emergence of broken blood vessels. 

Similarly, excessive usage of hydroquinone, a common ingredient in skin-lightening products, can lead to the appearance of blue-black or gray-blue pigmentation – a condition known as ochronosis. 

Dr. Amna gave an example of her patient and said that there is one patient every day who is a victim of these problems and despite numerous procedures, the reversal rate is never 100%. 

She further stated, that long-term use of skin-lightening products, like the Stillman’s bleach cream, can intensify side effects, exemplified by ochronosis stemming from the overuse of hydroquinone.

 Amidst these concerns, the significance of adequate sun protection goes a long way. It becomes a pivotal component, especially when using products that influence pigmentation. This is crucial to safeguard the skin from further damage. 

With that being said, treating the side effects of skin-lightening products requires a personalized approach. Identifying the underlying cause and gradually tapering off harmful ingredients is essential, steering the skin towards recovery.

As per the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), over-the-counter (OTC) skin lightening products are neither safe nor effective. Any drug or food item being sold in the US legally has to be FDA approved. The FDA currently does not regulate any products being marketed as natural skin bleaching aids. It has in fact issued an advisory that such products, especially in the case of darker skin tones can cause hyperpigmentation. 

Unregulated copycats in the market

Cheap alternatives or knock-offs exist in the fairness cream industry as well. However, a designer-wear fake or copy might not be as dangerous as one in the beauty creams industry. Unregulated beauty creams, which are sold for a nominal price, contain a variety of harmful chemicals. That being said, Unilever’s Glow & Lovely and Poonia Brothers’ Faiza Beauty Cream have a set target market that can afford them. Currently, a single unit of Glow & Lovely is available for Rs 1400, while Faiza Cream is available for Rs 400. 

In comparison, a fairness cream brand of questionable credibility is offering packages of several fairness creams in a bundle priced between Rs 1000 and Rs 3000. One such brand is ‘Asma Doll’, which, according to a media report, was recently shut down following a raid at its factory premises. They are alleged to have been selling unregulated harmful products marketed as ‘beauty creams’ that contain dangerous chemicals. 

Unilever and Faiza products have managed to carve a niche for themselves in the skincare industry, despite their relatively higher price tags. The enduring demand for these brands is a testament to their perceived quality and effectiveness. 

However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that their popularity comes at a premium compared to some more affordable alternatives in the market like ‘Asma Doll’ products. Such brands have gained popularity amongst the lower classes because of their prices all the while being marketed as quick-fix solutions for instant beauty enhancements.

 A visit to their website and social media page offers a glimpse into their marketing strategies, which heavily emphasize the promise of instant beauty transformations. It also reflects their concerted efforts to appeal to consumers through eye-catching visuals and persuasive messaging.

 The obsession with skin whitening has fueled an unprecedented demand, leading some manufacturers to resort to questionable practices by mixing harmful ingredients which can lead to severe health and skin damage. The unchecked proliferation of such products underscores the urgent need for better regulation and consumer awareness in the skincare industry.

 Promoting a dangerous trend 

 It is imperative that companies and agencies market their products responsibly for the consumer. However, according to an article published in the Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies (EJBO) (2010), it stated that the primary ethical concern was that commercials often exaggerate product benefits, misleading consumers.

 “While government regulation, consumer action, and industry self-regulation could address these concerns, government intervention is limited due to a lack of rules, consumer awareness, and literacy. Industry self-regulation could protect consumers and society from negative effects. Companies that honestly represent their products gain trust and a competitive edge,” (EJBO, 2010).

 According to the advertising professional (who wished to remain anonymous), “Most brands remain careful in their communication, employing indirect methods much like selling cigarettes, allowing consumers to exercise their choice.”

 Not only that, he stated that certain brands refrain from overtly promoting fairness yet avoid discussing it, potentially to balance diverse societal motivations, which is why they have been careful in reaching out to customers.

 “They have started using a more digital, direct approach to minimize irrelevant exposure. Process for briefing creative teams does involve subtlety and vagueness,” he stated, further adding that the usability of different metrics for advertising effectiveness lies within the purview of agency and brand teams. 

When talking about advertising investment, he said that it can vary among brands due to sales or investment priorities; a common rule suggests 5% of revenue allocation.

Over the years, a growing shift in societal perspectives favouring body positivity and the appreciation of diversity has resulted in a rising resistance against the fairness cream sector. 

Consumers and advocacy organizations are pushing for an all-encompassing beauty standard that values and celebrates natural skin tones. This changing narrative, driven by the aforementioned components can help in reshaping the beauty landscape in Pakistan and beyond.

Saneela Jawad
Saneela Jawad
Staff member and TV show addict. Her interests lie in culture, fashion and highlighting social injustices. She's also on a mission to end hunger with the initiative Tiffin Point. She tweets at @SaneelaJawad Email: [email protected]


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