Dark skin is not so beautiful in India -- or so it seems from the flourishing business of skin-lightening and whitening creams, demands for "fair and beautiful girls" on matrimonial sites, and mockery of the dusky skin tone.
But those reaching out for skin-lightening solutions beware -- experts warn against excessive use of such products and therapies. It can lead to life-long complications, they say.
"Many creams contain steroids and they can cause permanent damage to the skin from long-term use," Kuldeep Singh, Senior Consultant Plastic, Cosmetic and Reconstructed Surgery at Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, told IANS.
He said that healthy skin can be achieved regardless of complexion and that skin treatments cannot lead to lasting or permanent change in complexion.
"Glutathione is a drug which has been advertised all over the Internet as a skin-whitening agent. The truth is that glutathione is a very strong antioxidant present in our body which gets depleted with age or illness. The only scientifically-documented efficacy of glutathione injections is to reduce toxicity of certain anti-cancer drugs.
"The rest is all vague, and not scientifically proven," he added.
Aakriti Kochar, beauty and make-up expert at Oriflame India, pointed out that skin-lightening creams can only lighten the melanin in the skin to a certain extent. "They can't drastically change one's skin colour.
"A lot of factors, depending on the treatment and quality of one's skin, determine the risk factors involved in such treatments. Overdoing these can lead to severe skin problems as melanin is lightened, causing more exposure to sun rays and skin quality might be affected, leading to depleting in layers," Kochar told IANS.
There are many cosmetic brands which endorse skin-lightening and whitening creams, and indulge in blatant marketing to sell them. Of course, there are takers too.
According to market researcher AC Nielsen, in 2010, India's whitening-cream market was worth $432 million (Rs 2,600 crore). In 2012, Indians were said to have consumed 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products.
Two years later, the obsession with "whiteness" scaled a new level when a brand came up with a product designed to "brighten" the vagina.
The skin colour debate has time and again surfaced in the Indian and international cinema market. The latest instance involves acclaimed Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, who has expressed outrage upon facing a "racist attack" on a nationally-televised comedy show, for mocking her dark skin tone.
The actress is especially upset with how this deeply-rooted bias against colour has prevailed over the years.
Blossom Kochhar, Chairperson of the Blossom Kochhar Group of Companies, agreed that even in the 21st century, there seems to be no sign of a decrease in the number of people running after fair skin.
"People do not understand that to look beautiful, you need a glowing, clear and blemish-free skin. Not necessarily fair skin, as it does not symbolise beauty," Kochhar, a veteran in the Indian beauty industry, told IANS.
Stressing that skin-lightening solutions do not make one's skin fair but merely helps in brightening the skin, she added: "We should appreciate beautiful skin and that should not depend on the complexion. One can look beautiful by maintaining a clean and glowing skin by following a proper cleansing, toning, oiling and moisturising (CTOM) regime," she added.
Also, the conditioning needed for people to accept and appreciate people of all skin tones must be done from childhood.
"Any bias in society exists because enough has not been done to remove it. Education should be given from childhood to sensitise everybody not to discriminate against any human being on grounds of skin colour, race, religion, nationality, gender or profession. And this should start from the parents," Kuldeep Singh said.
(Nivedita can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)