Why Indians still want fair skin

Over the past few months, social media chatter around serums such as retinol, vitamin C and niacinamide, at-home peels such as glycolic acid, and masks and facewashes marketed as 'skin lighteners' has reached an all-time high.  (iStockphoto)
Over the past few months, social media chatter around serums such as retinol, vitamin C and niacinamide, at-home peels such as glycolic acid, and masks and facewashes marketed as 'skin lighteners' has reached an all-time high. (iStockphoto)


Beauty filters, social media and financial independence are keeping the unhealthy obsession with ‘whiteness’ intact

Kanika W., 28, wants clearer skin and, in the process, if she “gets fairer, that would be the best thing ever". The Delhi-based architect has always had acne-prone skin. Traditional remedies haven’t helped nor a snail mucin serum discovered on social media last year. She is now experimenting with chemical peels, which she also discovered on Instagram. “Many influencers say it was good for their skin. I checked with my dermatologist and the peels are helping. In some of the Reels, people say such peels make their skin clear and fair. I’m already fair, but who wouldn’t like getting fairer?"

Over the past few months, social media chatter around serums such as retinol, vitamin C and niacinamide, at-home peels such as glycolic acid, and masks and facewashes marketed as “skin lighteners" has reached an all-time high. They all come with one message: get clear, glass-like skin that “glows from within". Hidden in all these new Reels and cosmetology terms is the same, old, unhealthy desire—to become fair or fairer.

It may not be surprising given that fairness creams (not including serums, masks and peels) held 25% of the overall skincare market (worth 15,800 crore) in India last year, according to a NielsenIQ report. A quick search for #whitening on social media, especially on YouTube and Instagram, will result in thousands of videos offering DIY solutions (even pills). And dermatologists say that there are many who won’t hesitate to shell out a small fortune for fair skin.

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“Brands might have moved from fairness to words like ‘glow’ and ‘clear’, but the meaning for a large audience remains the same," says Rashmi Shetty, cosmetic dermatologist at Ra Aesthetics & Dermatology. “A large set of people are obsessed with whitening—glutathione is the most sold supplement and vitamin C (known for brightening) is popular for this reason. Every pharma and cosmeceutical company sells these ingredients aimed at lightening," she says. At her clinics in Mumbai and Hyderabad, the most enquiries come for peel and laser treatments such as Qswitch and Pico, used to remove pigmentation, scars and tans.

On average, five out of 10 patients ask cosmetologist Geetika Mittal Gupta if there are skin-lightening treatments at her luxury skincare clinic chain Isaac Luxe, which has a presence in the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad. “Indians have thought of Caucasian skin colour as the prime idea of beauty. Make-up brands in India didn’t have deeper shades until recently," says Dr Gupta. “This (desire to be fair) isn’t restricted to rural India. Financial independence is bringing more women in the cities to clinics as well. Very often, it’s a personal choice."

At cosmetic dermatologist Chytra V. Anand’s Kosmoderma clinics in Bengaluru and Chennai, over 35% of clients ask for full-body treatments such as lasers, peels, supplements and drips to look fairer. The age range is 25-40, with a majority of the requests coming from women, say both doctors.

Manu S. Walia, head dermatologist at Myrah Derma Med in Mumbai, says the “obsession with lasers and supplements" for skin lightening is driven by social media. “Due to the amount of misinformation on the internet provided by people with no experience or knowledge, patients ask for treatments like lasers and glutathione drips (believed to lighten dark spots and reduce pigmentation and wrinkles)," says Dr Walia. There has also been a rise in the availability of products aimed at skin lightening, including glutathione tubes in pharmacies. “The Indian market is a largely non-prescriptive one. Pharmacists just give topical steroid creams, which have side effects like thick facial hair, heightened skin sensitivity, acne eruptions, and thinning of the skin. One can also get addicted to these steroids due to the lightening effects that are visible temporarily," says Dr Walia.

Doctors say they tell their clients in no uncertain terms that nothing can “lighten" skin. Drips and lasers in prescribed dosages only help reduce skin damage and need multiple sessions.

The problem is the overlap between skin lightening and brightening in marketing terms, explains Delhi-based Simal Soin, chief dermatologist and founder of Aayna Clinics, which has branches in Delhi, Ludhiana and Gurugram, and chief medical officer of Clinikally, a digital skin and hair clinic and wellness company.

Pigmentation, sun damage and reduction of acne spots are common concerns, and products aimed at brightening work on these concerns to makes one’s natural skin look its best, says Dr Soin. However, these products and treatments are “slyly marketed for skin lightening and are often delivered in higher potency", which can lead to an entirely different set of skin and health problems. Glutathione drips for whitening, for instance, aren’t approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, but remain popular in India, where there are no bans, say experts.

Social pressure to conform to particular set standards of beauty is often at the heart of this desire to seek skin-lightening treatments. People still believe lighter skin can improve job as well as marriage prospects. Mrudul Nile, a professor of civics and politics at University of Mumbai, explains that this prejudiced association with fair skin is a result of the deeply ingrained caste system. “It is given largely that certain communities come with certain colours," says Prof. Nile. 

Dark skin can lead to bullying and is still a common source of anxiety, according to Dr Anand.

Both men and women seek treatments, but it’s often women who are more active in pursuing them, say experts. “Gen Z and younger millennials (aged 27-32) are smarter, but decision-making often lies with parents in India," says Dr Mahajan.

Shruti Bheda is among the younger people who are of a more progressive mindset. “I was 28 years old when my father asked me to go to a beauty parlour because I looked ‘so black’. I get this colour from you, I said, and he had nothing more to say," says the 38-year-old who runs an artisanal soap label in Himachal Pradesh. “I am very comfortable in my body and other people’s opinions don’t matter." Bheda is part of a small but growing group of people who believe in skin health rather than skin tone.

There is still a long way to go. India might have made some progress in challenging traditional beauty standards, but the preference for lighter skin and the many options for skin-lightening treatments indicate the bias is still prevalent.

Dr Anand says, “This continued demand highlights a need for broader cultural and educational efforts to redefine beauty standards and promote skin health over skin tone."

Dhara Vora Sabhnani is a Mumbai-based writer.

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