Has India’s Skin-Lightening Obsession Reached the Final Frontier?

It’s not enough for Indian boys and girls to fear that they won’t get a playmate or a spouse or a job because of their unsightly skin-tone. It’s not enough that ads should tell women they need their underarm deodorant to include skin-lightening cream if they want to go sleeveless.

Now comes Clean and Dry “intimate wash,” which promises women “protection, fairness and freshness” below the waistline. A new ad for the ph-balanced cleanser features an attractive young bride who lacks confidence around her husband, presumably because her vagina is too dark. After one splash of Clean and Dry, however, love blooms anew.

The media’s reception has been harsh. “This is a wonder product,” Manjula Narayan writes in India’s Sunday Guardian, “it’s an Itch Guard that promises to bleach my oyster.”

While skin lightening products and advertising are ubiquitous in India, this isn’t just a local, or regional, phenomenon. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rupa Subramanya points out that intimate skin-lightening got its start in the West, and notes that studies demonstrate the negative effect that darker skin can have on job-seekers in the United States:

To round out this picture, Joni Hersch, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, documents that the fairest skinned immigrants earn an average of 16-23% more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone. This is over and above any difference due to education, ethnicity, race, or anything else which influences labor market outcomes. Her conclusion is that there’s “persistent skin color discrimination” affecting immigrants in the U.S. labor market.

The scorn of India’s educated and liberated may not be enough to stop Clean and Dry. Skin lightening products are prevalent in Africa and Asia. I have encountered Fair and Lovely, the Coca-Cola of skin lighteners, in Darfur and South Sudan, Cairo and Tokyo.

Fair & Lovely "fairness cream" in a drug store window, Malakal, South Sudan, 2007.

I spoke recently with a dermatologist and plastic surgeon who practices in a mid-size Indian city. He told me that no matter what the client comes in for, he sends them out with a free tube of prescription-only skin-lightener. “They always come back” for more, he said.

The dermatologist had nothing good to say about the over-the-counter lighteners: “They make the skin darker over time,” he said, before launching into a short lecture on the chemistry of artificial fairness. The doctor’s real problem wasn’t getting patients interested in skin-lightening techniques – it was in getting them to stop.

One can only have so many dermabrasions and chemical peels, he explained with sigh. “You have to let your face rest. They don’t want to listen.”

Skin-lightening is a $400 million business with customers across the economic spectrum. Where does the Pigmentation Anxiety Industrial Complex go from here? Iris lightening? Eyeball-bleaching?

Maybe something to do with the feet?




Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.