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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2014  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 2-4

Skin color matters in India

Department of Dermatology and STD, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Puducherry, India

Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2014

Correspondence Address:
Devinder Mohan Thappa
Department of Dermatology and STD, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Puducherry - 605 006
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2349-5847.135419

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How to cite this article:
Thappa DM, Malathi M. Skin color matters in India. Pigment Int 2014;1:2-4

How to cite this URL:
Thappa DM, Malathi M. Skin color matters in India. Pigment Int [serial online] 2014 [cited 2023 Feb 5];1:2-4. Available from: https://www.pigmentinternational.com/text.asp?2014/1/1/2/135419

White is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything-white is no color because it is all colors. This property of whiteness to be everything and nothing is the source of its representational power…

-Dyer, 1992

Fair skin has always been the desire of people since ages and has been associated with beauty. However, the skin color and its variations in human is genetically determined and occurs at the functional level of the epidermal melanin unit, attributed by the density of melanocytes, the number, size, and dispersion of melanosomes transferred to epidermal keratinocytes, the nature of the pigment and its degradation rate. [1]

There are two types of skin color:

  • Constitutive skin color - natural, genetically determined color of the epidermis, uninfluenced by ultraviolet (UV) light or hormone exposure. Typically, seen in areas of little or no sun exposure, such as the underside of the upper arm
  • Facultative skin color - results from exposure to UV light and other environmental factors. Tanning changes the composition of melanin in the skin and increases the amount and size of melanin produced by melanocytes. [2]

Constitutive skin color undergoes changes with time in every individual, irrespective of occupation, race or environment (geographic/climatic), and such changes result in the facultative skin color. Facultative skin is darker than constitutive skin. Can we change our color of skin?

The skin color has a significant impact on the social and cultural aspects since time immemorial. Colorism also known as skin color stratification, defined as the preference for lighter skin and the ranking of individual worth according to skin tone has dominated a broad range of societies and historical periods, specifically in parts of Africa, Eastern Asia, India, Latin America, and the United States. [3] The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of "pigmentocracy," a term to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest-skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin color. [4]

In India, there is a long history behind the obsession with skin color, owing to caste, and culture. The desire for lighter skin must have originated from the structure of Hinduism's social hierarchy, in which those belonging to higher castes typically had fairer complexions and are better placed in the political hierarchy. Furthermore, throughout its history, India has been invaded by lighter-skinned nations, such as Great Britain, and therefore fairness, strength, and supremacy have become interconnected. Thus, fairness is an issue that has cultural, sociological and anthropological roots. [5] However, research demonstrates that though light-skinned people have clear advantages even when controlling for other background variables, dark-skinned people are typically regarded as more ethnically authentic or legitimate. [6] However, the underlying cause for the preference for fair skin could be probably attributed to the transnational correlation of whiteness with personal opportunity, success, and privilege and global influence of Western-dominated culture and media. Media and industry are the major culprits in solidifying the place of fairness as a prerequisite for beauty.

It is quite common in India to associate "fairness" of skin with comparative wealth, desirability, prestige, and attractiveness and for women increased matrimonial prospects with lesser dowry. In fact, fairness is considered a favorable factor for engagement and it is quite common to come across newspaper matrimonial advertisements seeking fair-skinned brides and bridegrooms. Indian matrimonial sites also make the skin color one of their key filter criteria, and it is most often used right after the height compatibility and horoscope match. [7],[8] Thus, fairness is so important to beauty in India that, just being in possession of this one feature and having no other specific deformities can be enough for a woman to be considered beautiful. This fairness obsession starts quite early even to the unborn baby in the mother's womb as evident from the well-known practice among pregnant women to take citrus fruits and saffron to beget a fair skin baby. However, the irony is the same people in this country who would go to the ends of the earth to get a fair complexion are the ones who socially stigmatize people with depigmentation disorders such as vitiligo affecting their marriage prospects to a great extent. [9]

This color complex among Indians initially among women and now even among men has been perpetuated by the media images and television advertisements, which portrays lighter skin men and women more attractive, confident, and successful. This fairness obsession has led to all sorts of treatments for achieving a desirable skin color or improving an undesirable one, and this has been exploited by cosmetic industries as evident from the recent surge of skin-whitening products and advertisements for them and their highly flourishing multibillion-dollar business. It is estimated that in Asia, skin-whitening products account for 60% of sales of skin-care items. India is one of the world's largest skin-lightening markets, with an estimated 60-65% of women using some form of skin-lightening product between the ages of 16 and 35. [7] It has been estimated that this practice of using skin-lightening agents accounts for approximately 61% (1000 crore rupees, $250 million) of the Indian dermatologic market. [5] Indians have been reported to consume 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola. [10] The opportunity for these fairness products companies is provided by the favorable demographics in India - youth population, increasing working class population, increasing female working population, positive change in the economic conditions enabling people to spend more on their personal grooming and wellness, youth's shift toward Western style of living, etc. [11] All these factors have provided an opportunity for cosmetics and fast moving consumer goods companies to bank on this growing need of the consumers resulting in Indian domestic companies such as Dabur, Himalaya, etc., and multinational companies like L'Oreal, Amway et al., entering the skin care products markets with different fairness products.

Indian women have been obsessed with the use of skin-lightening agents for decades, especially since 1978, when Unilever launched Fair and Lovely cream, which has become synonymous with fairness products in India and continues to be the best selling fairness brand until date and has spawned numerous whitening face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that claim to lighten the surrounding skin. [10] The skin-lightening industry has also begun targeting men since 2005, when the cosmetics company Emami launched Fair and Handsome for men which achieved sales of $13 m within 3 years of the products' launch. [12] A recent study by Hindustan Unilever showed how men in Southern states (populated by relatively darker skin color than northern India) such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka are "fervent purchasers" of whitening creams. Moreover, these products are endorsed by famous Cricketers, Bollywood stars and models with fair skin increasing the craze for using these agents. The target audience of these advertisements is usually males and females in their 20-30 as only those in this age range have social concerns for beauty and have the spending power to purchase such expensive products. From the manufacturing of fairness creams to face, the beauty industry has progressed to the next stage of capitalizing the obsession of fairness in manufacturing skin-lightening cream for the private parts (vaginal lightening washes and testicular lightening cream as they are known as) providing false claims and socially harmful advertisements. The most dangerous side of the story is the production of unapproved systemic skin-lightening agents under the label of cosmeceuticals or food products thus evading stringent regulations and taking advantage of the lax advertising law. [13]

Most of the advertisements and packaging for these whitening products claim that the products can "whiten" and improve the quality of skin within 2 weeks or so. However, the consumers should be aware that with skin-lightening agents, the facultative color change achieved may progressively revert back to the constitutive skin color level and normally, the color change may not happen beyond the constitutive level. If such a change is claimed, the product should be considered to be dangerous as such alterations can become nonreversible and may lead to contact leukoderma (for layman vitiligo like condition) or skin cancer. Moreover, promotion of fairness creams for a country of predominantly wheatish to dark-complexioned people, where a considerable number of them are below the poverty line, may not be ethical, especially because their claims are not substantiated with scientific evidence and involve a lot of money for their purchase. Since fairness creams act by inhibiting melanin synthesis, they modify the physiological system of the body best suited for that tropical region of earth thereby qualifying themselves under the category of drugs. Hence, scientific evidence as regards safety and efficacy of these products should be mandatory before marketing. [13],[14]

However, there is a brighter side to the story where it seems that the skin whitening obsession in India may have reached its limits. The Indian whitening cream market had been reported to expand at a rate of nearly 18% a year and in 2010, the country's largest research agency, ACNielsen, estimated that the figure would rise to about 25% by 2012 and the market would be worth an estimated $432 m, an all-time high. [12] On the contrary, the same research agency reported that in 2012, the Indian skin whitening cosmetics market experienced a 4.5% negative growth in sales volume in 2012. The sales of Fair and Lovely dipped by 4.2% and its male counterpart Fair and Handsome dipped by 14%, this drop in sales of skin-lightening agents has occurred during the time when the sales of skin care products are on the rise by 9%, probably indicating a changing and mature mind-set among consumers regarding the use of skin-lightening agents. [15] There is a possibility that they may have shifted themselves to other herbal products of fairness advertised and marketed on the TV not taken care by surveys.

To conclude, skin color affecting the lives of young people culturally, socially, emotionally, and medically is also an important public health issue that needs immediate attention. It is high time that necessary actions need to be taken targeting the youth to emphasize that there is more to life than skin color. They need to be made aware that their insecurities are being exploited by the highly flourishing cosmetic industries and none of these fairness/skin-whitening/lightening drugs can make the skin of a person fairer or whitish beyond his/her constitutive skin color. The "Dark is Beautiful" campaign started in 2009 by Kavitha Emmanuel, the founder of Women of Worth, is the first step taken hoping to halt India's huge appetite for skin whitening products. The film star Nandita Das is its brand ambassador and she has taken a stance against the craze for fair skin, challenging the belief that success and beauty are determined by skin color. [10] Such interventions are the need of the hour to change the perceptions and educate people to be comfortable in their own skin.

No matter what skin color you are on the outside, it's all about what you are like on the inside.

-Norman Sykes

  References Top

1.Solano F, Briganti S, Picardo M, Ghanem G. Hypopigmenting agents: An updated review on biological, chemical and clinical aspects. Pigment Cell Res 2006;19:550-71.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Banerjee S. The inheritance of constitutive and facultative skin colour. Clin Genet 1984;25:256-8.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Franklin I. Living in a Barbie world: Skin bleaching and the preference for fair skin in India, Nigeria, and Thailand. Available from: http://www.iis-db.stanford.edu/docs/771/Imani_Franklin.pdf. [Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Harris T. Pigmentocracy. Freedom's Story, TeacherServe© . National Humanities Center. Available from: http://www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/pigmentocracy.htm. [Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Ladizinski B, Mistry N, Kundu RV. Widespread use of toxic skin lightening compounds: Medical and psychosocial aspects. Dermatol Clin 2011;29:111-23.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Hunter M. The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociol Compass 2007;1:237-54.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Leong S. Who's the fairest of them all? Television ads for skin-whitening cosmetics in Hong Kong. Asian Ethn 2006;7:167-81.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Vaid J. Fair enough?: Color and the commodification of self in Indian matrimonials. In: Glenn EN, editor. Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 2009. p. 148-65.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Verma SB. Obsession with light skin - shedding some light on use of skin lightening products in India. Int J Dermatol 2010;49:464-5.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Rajesh M. India's dark obsession with fair skin. Available from http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/indias-dark-obsession-with-fair-skin/article5026795.ece. [Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Fareeda. Fairness Products Market in India: 'Fair'ing Well. Available from: http://www.ibscdc.org/Articles/Fairness_Products_Market_India_Fairing_Well.htm.[Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Durairaj L. The Indian whitening cream market is expanding at a rate of nearly 18% a year. Available from: http://www.theweekendleader.com/Causes/1249/Scare-and-sell.htm. [Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Malathi M, Thappa DM. Systemic skin whitening/lightening agents: What is the evidence? Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2013;79:842-6.  Back to cited text no. 13
[PUBMED]  Medknow Journal  
14.Agarwal M, Roy V. Fairness creams in the Indian market: Issues to be resolved. Indian J Clin Pract 2012;22:45-8.  Back to cited text no. 14
15.Barker C. Indian skin lightening market slows down: Has the nation finally overcome shade? Available from: http://www.cosmeticsdesign-asia.com/Market-Trends/Indian-skin-lightening-market-slows-down-has-the-nation-finally-overcome-shade.htm. [Last accessed on 2014 May 30].  Back to cited text no. 15

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