Skin lightening industry is worth over $8 billion

Creams, scrubs, pills and injections are being sold that claim to lighten skin. The skin lightening industry is expected to be worth $24 billion by 2027. References: StrategyR & Vogue.

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Amin Rashad
November 26, 2020 5:31 pm

As someone with a South Asian background, I’d like to give some insight into why I’m not surprised to see such high projections for the skin lightening industry. When I first started university 5 years ago, to put it mildly, I had let myself go. I wasn’t really looking after myself physically and my eating habits were a mess. I knew I wasn’t very healthy but I figured I was a young guy and I could get away with it. So when it came to my appearance, while I certainly didn’t want to look bad, I also didn’t put too much effort into it.

Going to university was an eye-opener. Here I was on campus with people who were wearing fashionable clothes, had trendy haircuts, and all round just looked after themselves. It’s not that I fixate on what people look like, but I couldn’t help but notice the difference between them and me. It was an interesting first year in which I felt self-conscious and not quite good enough compared to the average person.

When summer came around, I resolved to look after myself a bit better. I started working out and eating healthier. I bought some new clothes and even looked at some skin care products. When my 2nd year of university started and I came back to campus, a few friends remarked how I looked better. That of course, was pleasant to hear. Over the next few days, I’d look at other people in campus – people who I had previously felt insecure around, and I finally felt like I belonged. That’s all it took, I thought to myself. You just need to look after yourself a bit more. But it was one comment that stood out to me.

“You’ve become lighter.” At the time, I didn’t know what it was about this sentence, but it gave me a slight sense of euphoria. Why was such a simple sentence causing this internal burst of emotion? Someone earlier had mentioned that I looked a bit stronger. That was good and all – I had been working out quite a lot. But that statement paled in comparison to the comment about my skin complexion. I’ve thought about that comment a lot over the years, and why it had the impact it did.

Growing up around South Asian culture, you’re very likely to have subconsciously adopted an understanding that fair skin is something to aspire to and dark skin is undesirable. I hadn’t thought about it at all in my first year at university, so it wasn’t something that I had purposefully attempted to achieve. But the feeling I got from someone saying I was looking lighter was powerful. I felt as if more possibilities were opening up. Perhaps I’d actually be worthy enough to have a significant other. Maybe I’d make a lot more friends, rather than the 3 or 4 people I spent the majority of my time with in my first year. Looking back, I think about how a comment about the fairness of my skin could make it seem that my life was about to change – undoubtedly this would have come from the years of attending different South Asian functions, weddings, parties where you hear comments about how a baby looks “fair and beautiful”, and how Mr. X has a beautiful wife because she’s “fair”. Or how it’s unfortunate that someone’s child is a bit darker than expected.

This has been embedded within South Asian culture for years. However now, several years on and a bit more self-aware, I am grateful if someone pays me a compliment but I would feel troubled if someone mentioned the complexion of my skin. I’d like to think myself and the South Asian friends I have are not concerned with becoming light skinned just so we can meet some societal definition of what ‘handsome’ is. It feels as if this attitude is one that’s still present among the older generation, but one that’s fizzling out in modern society.

Last edited 1 year ago by Amin Rashad
Hussaini Azri
November 24, 2020 11:29 pm

The skin lightening market is growing, but so is the skin tanning market. Sales of self-tanning products are expected to reach $5.5 billion by 2026. A small figure compared to that of skin whitening products, but still not to be ignored. I would venture to guess that the larger market for skin whitening products is because the locations in which they are sold will have much larger populations. For example India, which is soon predicted to have the world’s largest population by 2027, sells skin care products of which over half of them have skin whitening properties. Conversely there are likely to be few people in India who want to buy skin tanning products.

It’s argued that the desire for these products emanate from perceptions of social status. For some countries this is a lingering legacy of colonialism. By virtue of being in the right place in the right time, several European countries colonized countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. A lasting legacy is a desire for people in these countries to emulate those who had wealth and power; in this case, light-skinned peoples.

Even in European countries, darker skin was associated with low social status. It was the poor laborers who had to work outside in the sun without any shade. The pale skinned people were those with money who stayed indoors. And so the same thing has happened in countries that were colonized. Those with wealth and power were the light skinned colonizers, and there was a desire among the population to be emulate the wealthy. There’s a similar phenomenon that occurred in ancient Egypt though not related to skin color. Being fat was something people aspired to. If you were fat, it meant you were wealthy and weren’t a laborer who toiled all day in the heat. A big difference compared to today’s aspirations of being lean and having a six pack 😂

Funnily though, things have changed when it comes to skin color – but I preface this by saying it’s only changed in some countries. Soon people who had money were traveling abroad and sunbathing in exotic locations. Having tanned skin became associated with the wealth and adventure of a high social class. And so as it happens, people wanted to emulate this. Tanning, as we know, is a big market and you’re often complimented on your tan when you come back from a sunny holiday ☀️😎

Niharika Khatri
November 26, 2020 1:23 am

Bollywood is one of the first things that comes to mind when I read this situation. If any industry has promoted skin lightening and the aspiration of fair skin, it’s Bollywood – India’s multi-billion dollar film industry.

India’s population has great diversity; in language, culture, beliefs… and skin color. It’s all the more obvious then to notice something a bit strange when you watch a Bollywood film. Almost all the big time actors are light skinned. These actors have traditionally been considered more commercially viable and have secured lucrative contract with skin lightening cream manufacturers. Who better to promote your skin lightening product in India than a Bollywood megastar?

What impact does this have on the population, millions and millions of whom aren’t light skinned? Many people have shared their stories of not feeling good enough in a society that idolizes light skin. It’s estimated that over 60% of women in India have tried skin lightening creams with the ultimate goal of becoming ‘fair’. With the echelons of Bollywood reserved for light-skinned actors, darker-skinned actors have been considered undesirable or not commercially viable. Of course there’ll be a massive market for skin lightening creams if such a prejudice is widely visible.

You may think, “Well, not everyone is an actor, nor do they want to become one.” That’s not the point. If you turn on the TV or tune into any online channel in India, you’re bombarded with the subconscious message that light skin is associated with success, whichever field you want to pursue.

There are stories of darker-skinned actors who have been given roles in blockbuster films, but the roles have been for poorer characters. When the same actor has secured a role as a richer character, they have been encouraged to use skin lightening creams. Bollywood continues to portray high class and wealth with light skin. In fact while some of us may be familiar with the term ‘glass ceiling’ – a term used when a member of an underrepresented group breaks into a senior leadership role in the corporate world – there’s a term in Bollywood called the ‘class ceiling’. This is when a dark skinned actor secures a role in a big time Bollywood film.

Aaron Seleka
November 28, 2020 12:44 am

South Africa was the first country in the world to ban skin lightening creams that contain hydroquinone. This was back in 1990 when it was clear that hydroquinone was responsible for serious side effects, and although it is illegal to sell here, this hasn’t stopped people from selling and buying it. In fact they are still easily found in markets and shops, meeting the demand from people in Black and Asian communities who feel that lighter skin makes them more desirable and helps them become more confident. There is a general understanding that light skin is also associated with opportunity. It’s understood that the chances of being successful at a job interview are higher if you have lighter skin. It shouldn’t come as a shock that 1 in 3 women in South Africa has admitted to using these creams.

There was some research published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2015, ‘Skin lightening practices: An epidemiological study of South African women of African and Indian ancestries’. In the study of 600 participants it found that 90% of women using skin lightening creams weren’t aware of the side effects. I don’t know what to think about this. On one hand it’s very dangerous that so many women are exposing themselves to serious health complications. But on the other hand, there’s a small positive aspect to this. It would be even worse if people were using skin lightening creams and KNEW about the side effects. That would be a damning indictment on our society if people would knowingly be taking such risks just for the goal of having a slightly lighter shade of skin.

Irvin Blake
November 28, 2020 6:57 pm

The skin lightening industry is large and is expected to grow by 3 times its size by 2027. Reading some of the other insights here, I get why the industry is projected to grow, but at the same time I question if it will reach $24 billion by 2027.

First of all, these products are banned in many countries. It will be a constant battle between law enforcement and smugglers to get a leg up. Though if there is enough demand, people will find a way to get these products into their country. Which brings me to my second point – awareness. There is growing awareness about the harmful side effects of these products and there’s also growing awareness about self-worth and loving yourself for who you are. There are many movements that are aligned to being comfortable in your own skin such as body positivity and fat acceptance. On social media, there’s often an outpouring of support for people who are body shamed.

Third, people are calling out companies that sell skin whitening products and the celebrities that endorse them. This will be a real test of ethics vs capitalism, which is very often defined by getting profits at any cost. Companies such as L’Oreal and Unilever, which own multiple beauty brands, have been criticized for selling these products. Corporate boardrooms would have been in panic mode earlier this year following the Black Lives Matter movement – they’d evidently want to keep selling these products given the revenue they earn, but it’s increasingly untenable to sell products that claim to make you ‘more white’. Johnson & Johnson decided to stop selling some of their ‘fairness’ products after criticism of not addressing racism, whereas companies such as L’Oreal, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble just changed their packaging; which people have not been happy about!

Priyanka Chopra is just one Bollywood celebrity who came under fire following the George Floyd murder. She posted on social media about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but was called out for her hypocrisy in promoting skin lightening creams as well as starring in films where darker skinned people are portrayed negatively.

My final point is more anecdotal and observational in nature. I notice a trend of people moving away from perfection, in whichever way you want to perceive it. It’s no longer in vogue. The ‘dad bod’, for example, is looked upon positively! I was speaking with a friend recently about experiences on dating apps and they mentioned how they were turned off by those attempting to look perfect. It’s as if you’re trying too hard. We’re all imperfect and it’s refreshing to see more people who embrace this instead of those who are using all kinds of angles, lighting, cosmetic procedures (fillers, implants etc.) to look a certain way. It feels as if perfection, whatever it may be, is no longer something people want to aspire to.

Taabia Ahmed
November 24, 2020 9:47 pm

Skin color has always been considered important especially when you’re looking for someone to marry. Unfortunately in Pakistan people suffer from an inferiority complex of being perceived as “dark”. Young girls have been rejected for marriage considerations if she’s not a white fair lady or even wheatish. It may sound absurd but it’s true in my country. Qualifications, family background, capabilities and other admirable qualities are not even considered first.

Many teenage girls tend to apply multiple expensive beauty creams to lighten up their skin. The worrying part is that many of these creams can cause damaging skin conditions. Beauty products and bleaching creams are very common. Every other morning TV shows will show “home remedies” to make your skin lighter within a few weeks. I once was watching a show where a dermatologist injected vitamin E onto the face of a random audience member – live on TV! Skin tone matters a lot here.

Last edited 1 year ago by Taabia Ahmed