India’s skincare industry is moving away from skin whitening, but to new problems

Even though beauty standards are still eurocentric in India, newer skincare brands are moving away from fair skin as a goal. But there is growing concern that these products might encourage consumerism and new unrealistic skin goals.
Person using a skincare product
Person using a skincare productRepresentative image/Pexels
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Fair skin was never a life goal for Antra, a 25-year-old PR professional in Bengaluru, yet up until a few years ago she often went looking for and followed ‘remedies’ for her tanned skin. “My parents would be after me if I get tanned. So I used to seek out solutions,” she says. 

Now, all she wants is for her skin to be clear and hydrated. But several Indian women would still echo Antra’s sentiments on how there has always been a pressure, internal or otherwise, to work hard towards lightening their skin as it was often considered the benchmark of beauty. In India, good skin has almost always been equated with ‘milky white’ and blemish free. Advertisements for ‘fairness’ creams showed women easily climbing the corporate ladder or finding success in the marriage market, but only after lightening their skin by at least three shades. 

Over time, problematic products such as ‘Fair and Lovely’ found themselves under the radar for promoting light skin as the ultimate beauty standard, and capitalising on people’s insecurities to sell their product. As at least sections of society began to learn and unlearn, public pressure eventually pushed Hindustan Unilever Ltd to rename the brand as ‘Glow and Lovely’ in July 2020.

Today, even as beauty standards remain largely eurocentric in India, newer skincare brands are moving away from fair skin as the ultimate goal. But simultaneously, there is rising concern that these products are encouraging consumerism and setting other unrealistic skin goals. 

Building a skincare routine

Modern skincare industry’s goals have evolved from acquiring light skin to more realistic aims such as sun protection, reduction of acne and acne scars, and hydration. Indian brands are now developing products aligned with these goals, backed by robust science, research, and experimentation. 

What started out as a pitch for a simple daily skincare routine with cleanser, moisturiser, and sunscreen, slowly began to include ‘active’ ingredients that help with hyperpigmentation, exfoliation, and fading acne marks. There are products with vitamin C for brightening skin and reducing pigmentation. The presence of hyaluronic acid is said to help with hydration and locks in natural moisture. Niacinamide, a type of vitamin B-3, helps reduce visible pores and soften wrinkles, and heal damaged skin barriers. 

These products are supposed to help improve a person’s overall skin, but there are others to help remove buildup, dead skin cells, blackheads, and whiteheads. Exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are available in the form of serums and peels, which are also said to make the skin brighter and help achieve an even skin tone. Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is a favourite among skincare enthusiasts as it has been proven to slow down ageing and help smoothen fine lines and wrinkles. 

With this large line-up of products, newer brands have been encouraging people to build a ‘routine’ that would help them get the benefits all these products have to offer. Besides, these array of products complement each other to the extent that one may even cancel out the potential side effects caused by another. For instance, if someone is using products with AHAs and BHAs and/or retinol which are said to make the skin more prone to sunburns, the use of sunscreen also becomes mandatory.

Brands appealing to youngsters

The branding of these newer companies is different from their older, mass-manufactured counterparts. Now, there are conscious attempts to be more inclusive of skin shades, genders, and body types. This could do with the fact that the primary target audience for these brands are youngsters, who might want to move away from archaic beauty standards.

Nainika (@badassbrownbeauty), who has been a skincare influencer for four years, says new age Indian skincare brands have a younger, fresher brand identity crafted to target urban Gen Z and young millennial consumers. “This segment has a higher level of socio-political awareness than previous generations, which includes rejecting the notion of fairness being synonymous with beauty. Newer homegrown brands reflect this mentality,” she says. She adds that this shift in public sentiment, coupled with the ban on advertising skin whitening products, is slowly pushing the skincare industry away from glorifying light skin. 

Even if the newer brands do not have skin lightening products, not much has changed in reality. Dr Manasi Shirolikar, a consultant dermatologist based in Mumbai, says there is still a desire for whitening skin among her clients. But the term ‘whitening’ is not as commonly used nowadays, she says. “Patients often seek brighter or more evenly toned skin, particularly around wedding seasons. Those who are familiar with popular ‘whitening’ agents inquire about them. There is also a growing interest in ‘body brightening’, specifically areas such as knees, elbows, inner thighs, neck, and intimate regions. In such cases, I clarify that these variations in skin tone are natural and may not completely fade even with the use of creams, peels, or lasers,” she adds.

Are these brands promoting consumerism?

Despite their modern and more scientific approach to skincare, the newer brands are not devoid of criticism. Oftentimes, they draw flak for promoting consumerism by encouraging people to buy multiple products to achieve the perfect skin. If the high number of products were not enough, there are big, flashy sales runs that pressure people into buying what they might not need. Then there are the vigorous marketing campaigns by the brands as well as skincare influencers, who even offer recommendations on what to buy or skip.

Pragya, a 25-year-old PR consultant in Bengaluru, says the sheer number of products with varying specifications had left her confused and worried, wondering what would be best suited for her skin. “There is an ocean of products out there and everyone is promoting every product. If I were to go by social media reviews, especially from influencers, then every product is good! There is so much marketing for them and I was definitely confused on which ones I should pick,” she says. Pragya adds that she was eventually able to narrow down on products based on her skin type and the concerns she was looking to address. 

Dr Manasi says most of her clients are overwhelmed by the variety of products in the market, which also causes them to jump between products when they do not see immediate effect. “Some patients have experimented with numerous products without witnessing results. In some cases, this has even harmed their skin barrier, leading to increased acne or pigmentation. Often, they impulsively purchase the latest trending products without considering their skin type or specific needs. But there are also individuals who feel inundated by the multitude of available products and find it challenging to navigate through the options,” she says.

At the same time, there are also products like gua shas, jade rollers, and sheet masks that promise quick benefits, but have little scientific backing to their effectiveness. Gua shas and jade rollers, which are quite expensive, might feel relaxing and help unwind after a long day but do little to tone the skin or improve jawlines. Similarly, sheet masks provide momentary benefits based on its active components, but nothing to help in the long run. Because sheet masks can be used only once, there are also concerns on how much it might be contributing to pollution. But these issues are seldom addressed by the marketing campaigns that promote them. 

Are these brands setting unrealistic skin standards?

Some brands are also criticised for peddling the notion that using a slew of products will help people achieve that perfect, glossy, glass-like skin with no visible pores. With the availability of retinol based products, there has also been a spurring interest in ‘anti-ageing’ skincare. But this trend too has an unhealthy side to it, as it causes even natural processes like ageing to be perceived negatively. There is a developing pressure, especially on women, to do everything to avoid getting wrinkles and fine lines. 

“I think pursuing any skin goal can be just as unhealthy as pursuing fairness if it’s taken overboard,” says Nainika. “When it becomes an obsession, people will start idealising the ‘glass skin’, which is unattainable and unrealistic.”

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