No dearth of fairness creams in India, but here's what the ads are not telling you

The ads make tall claims and hide the fact that these creams can harm your skin.
No dearth of fairness creams in India, but here's what the ads are not telling you
No dearth of fairness creams in India, but here's what the ads are not telling you
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With scores of fairness creams in the market (now, for men too), there is no dearth of choices for those who want a lighter complexion. And while the confidence and number of friends the models in these ads have is inversely proportional to the darkness of their skin colour, there’s plenty that the ads don’t tell.

Dr Vidya TS, President of Bangalore Dermatological Society says that the obsession with fairness has much to do with misleading advertisements like this one:

Lakme’s product endorsed by Kareena Kapoor has the actor catch and tap crystals on her way to a dressing room where the product, glowing like the crystals that are trapped inside it, is revealed.

And voila, there’s the fair actor with even fairer ‘glowing’ skin as ‘micro-crystals’ work their magic!

 Ads like these target people like Mumbai-based Jui Mukherjee. She was only 12 years old when at a family function, her aunts commented on how dark she was by way of greeting. “It didn’t matter to them that I was house captain at school, topped my class or was doing well in sports. All they worried about was that no one would marry me because I was dark,” she says.

The incident made Jui feel like none of her achievements mattered because she was dark. Her mother didn't say anything but insisted later that she use de-tan packs and 'Multani mitti' after her swims. But Jui stopped speaking to those relatives altogether.

The obsession with fairness is not new, and certainly not in India.

Most of the fairness creams have sunscreen and a bleaching agent in them, so users experience lighter skin tone initially. But continued usage causes “mottled pigmentation” or white spots on the skin due to the bleaching agent present in the creams.

There are other creams like Betnovate, Fourderm and Quadriderm which are steroid-based or contain a combination of steroids and bleaching agents. Dr Vidya says that while these creams will give you instant fairness, they do more harm than good in the long term.

“People have come to me with hair growth on their face, steroid induced acne and even rebound pigmentation,” she says. The last is when the continued use of a substance ends up having the effect opposite to what it was intended for – it ends up making the skin darker.

These creams contain ‘hydroquinone’, a bleaching substance which has the above mentioned side-effects, apart from causing thinning of skin and wrinkles.

On a daily basis, Dr Vidya gets 2-3 requests from men and women who want “even-toned” skin. But when she offers them procedures like skin rejuvenation with laser treatment, topical creams or oral medication, they reveal that they actually want a lighter skin colour.

Recently, the number of parents approaching Dr Vidya to make their children fairer has also increased. “In one case, the child was only a few months old!” she exclaims. She counsels the parents to not to criticize the children’s skin tone in front of them and instead focus on making their skin healthier. Even when parents insist, Dr Vidya does not prescribe treatment for children below 12 years.

The safer treatments involve ‘glutathione’, which is available in soaps, creams, oral medication and intravenous injections. And while the latter is not FDA approved, some doctors exploit the fad for fairer skin and prescribe these injections at steep prices. Although safer, the treatments are expensive. The tablets can cost up to Rs 5000 a month, the cream can range from Rs 300 to 1000 for a 20 gram tube (depending on the company) and the soap is priced at Rs 200 a bar.

The fact that so many people are willing to shell out major bucks just to get fairer skin speaks plenty about how fairness is equated with beauty. 31-year-old Amudha grew up with comments about her dark complexion from relatives and friends.

“One guy even told me he couldn’t differentiate between me and the blackboard,” she recounts. Originally from Chennai, Amudha now does public health research in Singapore where, she says, fairness products are just as popular.

“This has so much to do with the media. Take Tamil Nadu, for instance, where a majority of the people have dark complexion. But the heroines in our films…not so much,” she points out.

Another example of misleading advertising is ‘instant’ fairness. De-tanning, for example, does not happen overnight and actually takes multiple sessions. “But people just want to be done with one sitting. So they will use harsh creams which initially cause inflammation. They mistake the redness for the ‘glow’ advertisements feature and keep using them,” Dr Vidya says.

Dr Vidya states that the focus should actually be on healthy skin rather than fair skin. “But people, especially women, are so afraid that the society will reject them because of their appearance or that they will not find a groom, that unfortunately, lighter skin becomes important for their self-confidence,” she says. 

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