A sales assistant wipes a Unilever product, Fair and Lovely skin fairness cream, at a shop in New Delhi on April 30, 2013. Photo: AFP

The worldwide debate about racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last month in the US has put India’s fairness cream industry in the spotlight, with some players either withdrawing or rebranding their products. The market size of the industry is pegged at around 50 billion rupees (US$661 million), and this segment dominates the country’s skincare market.

Fair & Lovely, manufactured by Hindustan Unilever, the Indian unit of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, is the leading brand, enjoying a market share of 40%. Launched in 1975, it became an instant success as lighter skin in India is often considered synonymous with beauty, and the matrimonial ads section in various newspapers are replete with entries seeking “fair-skinned” brides. This is despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of people in the country have a brown or dark skin tone.

Soon, other players such as Johnson & Johnson, P&G and L’Oréal entered this segment. Their offerings included brand names such as Nivea, Olay, Pond’s, Dove, Neutrogena and Garnier. Top film stars were roped in to promote the brand. Television commercials showed dark-skinned women unable to find husbands or jobs until they used fairness creams to lighten their skin tone.

Interestingly, this obsession with fair skin was not confined to women. In 2005, Emami launched Fair And Handsome as market studies had revealed that a sizeable percentage of users of women’s fairness creams were men. A host of other brands also entered this newly formed segment.

Racism awareness

However, the George Floyd incident in the US has disrupted the industry by drawing sharp criticism of its promotion of a particular skin color. Film stars who had condemned US police brutality on social media have been out by netizens for their endorsement of fairness creams in the past.

Early last week, Johnson & Johnson announced it would no longer produce or sell two of its creams, Clean & Clear and Neutrogena, in India and West Asia. The company put out a statement that it was never its intention to project white as a better skin tone and emphasized that “healthy skin is beautiful skin.” It said it would no longer produce or ship the products, but that it might still appear on store shelves until stocks run out.

This has put pressure on other companies and a few days later Hindustan Unilever announced that it is rebranding Fair & Lovely without “fair” in the name. The company has not yet revealed what it will be called, but brand experts point out that there will be no change in the formulation of the product, which means its fairness-enhancing attribute will not vanish.

In the latest development, French cosmetics giant L’Oréal has announced that it will drop words such as white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening from all its skincare products. Matrimonial site Shaadi.com recently came under fire for having a “skin tone” filter on the site and was forced to withdraw it following protests.

According to Euromonitor International, about 6,277 tonnes of skin lightener were sold worldwide last year, mainly in Asia and Africa, including products marketed as anti-aging creams targeting dark spots or freckles.