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?



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.
  • […] colony, has always had a strong Western influence. To learn more about this development, visit news watch which contains the original story from National […]

  • Campaigner

    Please petition!!! https://www.change.org/​petitions/​stop-racism-in-indian-media​-and-movies please sign up and share!!! lets create a new India of respect and dignity!!!

  • […] been slowly scraping away at the beautiful native one. To learn more about this development, visit article which contains the original news from National […]

  • Aparna

    This argument that women need to be fairer as it affects their job prospects in the west is utter nonsense. If you are talking about racism, then that is an altogether different issue. I am dusky and grew up not-so-confident as a child despite my parents thinking I was beautiful, and as I grew older, went to university and continued with my academiscs, the focus shifted and became confident and my colour remained the same. In reality the colour coding in India matters mostly to people because they don’t find the right suitor, often women struggling with the perception than men. While education was important to men, women were meant to look like porcelain dolls that would pass their light-skinned genes further on. If they stand on a miss India stage, then all they have to do is show their rehearsed intelligence for people to know that they have brains behind the skin too. Utter farce and pretentious behaviour that Indian women in media and masses themselves are cultivating…it is high time that Indian media and all the women in general think there is more in life than skin colour to talk about and be preoccupied with. How about some real guts and confidence to be what you are to begin with!

  • […] informa nationalgeographic.com (NG) el Clean and Dry Intimate Wash es un producto que se vende en la India, lugar donde los […]

  • Joanne Hansen

    I just learned a couple of weeks ago that some skin lighteners contain mercury. Are the women who use these products being poisoned, too?

  • […] been slowly scraping away at the beautiful native one. To read more about this development, go to Indias Skin Lightening Obsession an article containing the original story from National Geographic. input, textarea{} […]

  • […] been slowly chipping away at the beautiful native one. To read more about this development, visit obsession an article containing the original story from National […]

  • […] India needs more such campaigns, which harness to the public good the infectious humor and imagination of an advertising industry that’s usually devoted to selling products like cars and — much less delightfully — skin-whitening cream. […]

  • Mischelle

    What’s wrong with wanting to be fairer? Fair is beautiful and attractive. This are the common perception whether you like it or not. Black normally cause people to be suspicious of you. Children are frighten of dark skin people. They tend to avoid dark skin people because their perception is dark is evil just like the dark area where something frightening must be hiding in there. This has nothing to do with western influence. This is natural perception. Only black painted cars look gorgeous!

  • […] For many women in South Sudan, light coloured skin is associated with beauty, as is the case for many in Sudan. The use of these products has been shown to have detrimental health effects. […]

  • […] to be ignored, National Geographic  has additional coverage and […]

  • sarah fernado

    Well i thought it was obvious being brown is against god’s plan lol come on, if they keep bleaching most of them will be dead by 40 which is what the western world want …weak weak weak how can millions of years of evolution be wrong to keep you alive many factors work being alive is a miracle considering what can happen to you in utero and early childhood development but if that what they want then fine the Chinese are there to dominate the next 100 years

  • Mahieu Summers

    Indian: “Im Proud of my Skin Color……. Letme bleach it white first”

  • Deepika

    I do believe that the belief that lighter skinais better than darker skin started with Western and European countries. One should look at history when ever a white country invaded a country such as Africa(Egypt, Moracco, & Libia) India, Australia or Asia. These were great and powerful dark skinned societies that existed long before white European societies. European countries wanted to steal their history by making people hate their skin color that God gave them. So they planted the seed of raceisam that whiter skin made you better. They began to inter marry with the indignious people in order steal their history and their wealth. Making laws that gave more rights to lighter skinned people and denied them to those of darker skin color. This happened in India when the British invaded, called us black and lowered our status, then raised others by rapping or inter marring and became lighter. The cast system in in so many countries including the USA, Africa where Egypt, Moracco, Libia is located, Australia the Middle East and Asia.

  • […] relevance), in addition to the rise of the skin bleaching industry, prevalent in parts of Asia – such as India – and West Africa – especially Nigeria (where the film is set) and Ghana, as sharply pointed […]

  • […] Sidibe, Beyoncé, Frieda Pinto, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.  Considering that of the top selling skin care products in India is facial lightening cream, lightening Ms. Bachchan is not only offensive, it […]

  • Sara

    If you do a simple Google search then you can see that this skin bleaching issue is global. African, China, Thailand, Korea, Jamaica, etc. It is definitely not just India.

  • Madhumati

    We need to ask all the men out there why are they more attracted towards white women. This tends to create complexity among the darker skin coloured women. We need to first of all change the mindset of men and do not forget how much we all talk about women emancipation and empowerment unfortunately it will always be a man’s world.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media