Oscar Holland, CNN Editors: Meera Senthilingam, Eliza Anyangwe; Design: Gabrielle Smith; Researchers: Lizzy Yee, Gawon Bae and Mengchen Zhang; Photo editor: Jennifer Arnow
Editor’s Note: This story is part of ‘lie to protect‘, a series of CNN’s As Equals investigating skin bleaching practices around the world to expose the underlying drivers of colorism, the industry that profits from it, and the cost to individuals and communities. For more information on CNN As Equals funding and more, check out our FAQs.
(CNN) — In 2020, while the Black Lives Matter Movement Amplified calls for racial justice in the United States and beyond, a succession of corporate announcements signaled what appeared to be a watershed moment for the cosmetics industry.
With multinational corporations under public pressure to voice their support for racial equality, consumers were quick to point out the inconsistency between the companies’ public statements and their continued promotion of creams, serums and lotions promising to “whiten » users’ skin. In response, several major skincare manufacturers have pledged to review their branding and product lines.
Johnson & Johnson announcement it would completely stop selling skin whitening products in Asia and the Middle East. L’Oreal promised remove words like “whitening” and “fair” from its ranges. Unilever too, which also bowed to increasing pressure from rename her controversial South Asian-focused brand, Fair & Lovely, to Glow and Lovely.
Nivea owner Beiersdorf AG has also distanced itself from the terms “laundering” and “fair”, revealing Allure Magazine that it was conducting a “thorough review” of its “product offering and marketing approach”. Last year, the German company told CNN it had conducted the review and, taking into account extensive consumer research, would cease communications that “do not embrace the skin tones of our diverse consumer base.” .
For activists, these were small but important steps toward rewriting industry narratives that equate beauty — and, often, success and happiness — with whiteness. Indeed, visit any of these cosmetic giants’ websites in the US or Europe today, and explicit references to skin color are seemingly absent.
Connect from Asia, Africa or the Middle East, however, and that’s another story.
L’Oréal’s platform in Singapore, for example, continues to actively promote creams and serums with “powerful whitening” properties, while its site for Indian customers stores a “White Active” Moisturizing cream. In Hong Kong, where the Chinese term for whitening literally associates the words “white” and “beautiful”, the brand recommended using a whitening face mask as part of its “tips for a peach complexion”, while in mainland China, recent social media advertisements offered a “whitening miracle” and “gentle whitening, like the wind of spring blowing on your face.” In Japan, an equivalent term “bihaku”, which also combines the words “white” and “beautiful”, is also used to describe and sell products.
Unilever also seemed to be saying different things to different demographics, even within the same region. Take one of its most popular skincare brands, Pond’s, whose American English website does not contain the word “whitening”, while the Spanish version operated an entire section of the website openly branded ” laundering” until CNN asked for comment on the page. In Thailand, meanwhile, customers can purchase a range of products branded “White Beauty” including sunscreen and facial cleanser.
And although Fair & Lovely may now be called Glow & Lovely, lighter-skinned South Asian models are still widely used on its packaging, and Unilever continues to offer Indian customers a “Intense Whitening» facial cleanser via its Lakmé brand. In the Philippines, the conglomerate has stayed true to the name Block & White for a range which, although marketed in the form of sunscreen, has until recent years vaunted its “intensive brightening” properties and its “5-in-1 Whitening Essentials” formula.
Amina Mire, who has studied the skin-bleaching industry for two decades, says the continued promotion of products that claim to whiten users’ skin shows that non-Western markets are still “too lucrative” for multinationals to take on. more meaningful measures. While she acknowledges that recent corporate announcements are “100% a step in the right direction”, the sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, believes multinationals “will not make any concessions – or at least very few concessions – in the Asian market”. market.”
“They clean up their websites…but on billboards and in their marketing, they know who their consumers are,” she told CNN. Mire says brands would resist calls to soften messaging used to target women outside the West, as consumers in many of those markets “demand” explicit guarantees that products whiten skin.
In a statement, L’Oréal “updated” its product lines, but “due to manufacturing schedules and product registration and certification requirements, this transition is not fully complete in all markets. and all materials. A spokesperson added that the company is “committed and focused on removing the term ‘laundering’ as quickly as possible in all markets.” The company also said the use of words such as “bihaku” is regulated in East Asian countries and the terms are “commonly used in these markets to describe an even, glowing, blemish-free complexion.” .
A Unilever spokesperson, meanwhile, said the company had stopped using the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘lightweight’ because they ‘suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think not be fair”. The release adds that “nearly all” of the company’s packaging and communications have been updated to reflect this. “Consumers may still find previous packaging available due to factors such as inventory levels or previous marketing descriptions on certain third-party websites,” the spokesperson said.
Unlike Unilever and L’Oréal, some cosmetics companies have tried to avoid accusations of hypocrisy by remaining completely silent on the issue.
For example, Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido, whose high-end skincare products are now widely available in Europe and the United States, has made no public announcements regarding the branding of its “White Lucent” line. Asked about it by CNN last year, the company responded with a statement saying its products “do not have the ability to whiten the skin”, adding: “We do not sell whitening products and we do not recommend not bleaching.” Shiseido declined CNN’s request for further comment on the matter.
Others seem to keep their promises. Online searches conducted by CNN on websites operated by Johnson & Johnson, which fall its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness ranges of Asian and Middle Eastern markets in 2020, found no instances of the word “whitening”. Johnson & Johnson did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Nivea, whose name the company says translates to “snow white,” appears to have taken a different route. Just last month, nearly two years after Beiersdorf AG promised changes, CNN discovered that regional websites all have detailed FAQs acknowledging that “beauty in Asia and Africa is often tied to complexion.” clearer”. She explained that her products “have no influence on skin color” and that Nivea does not promote skin lightening.
However, products sold in India were still marketed as ‘bleaching’ and ‘extra-bleaching’. Nivea’s Malaysian website also continued to have a “whitening” section, with a light-skinned model used to attract shoppers from the Southeast Asian country. These pages and products were all removed after CNN contacted Beiersdorf AG. In Nigeria, however, the products continue to deliver”natural fairness.”
It’s not hard to decipher why a gap between words and actions can persist. By the Society own account: “Nivea products containing whitening ingredients remain our biggest sellers throughout Asia.”
In a statement, a Beiersdorf AG spokesperson said products using the term “whitening” are “being changed” and that “adjustments to our product communication will become more visible…gradually in the coming months. “. The company said it is “travelling and…committed to improving” and that its products are “generally developed, produced and marketed on a regional basis in response to local consumer needs”.
Mire suggests that terms such as “brightening” and “brightening,” which are increasingly used by cosmetics companies as substitutes, are as steeped in colonial and racial narratives as the words they replace. She believes the branding of these products continues to exploit historical and racialized associations between skin tone and status.
The word “whitening” may have “become problematic,” Mire said, but the products still associate lightness “with urban progress, style, sophistication… aspects of globalization and modernity.”
In its statement to CNN, L’Oreal said “brightening” was “the most appropriate terminology” for products addressing concerns such as “uneven skin tone, blemishes and spots, primarily due to the effects harmful UV rays”.
“A disturbing inconsistency”