Some Of Your Fave Skin Care Companies Sell Skin Lightening Products

Some of the biggest skin care companies in North America use
the pursuit of fairer skin in their ad campaigns for products
sold outside the US.

Posted on October 10, 2017, 17:43 GMT

Over the weekend, Dove apologized
and pulled an ad it had posted on its US Facebook page
for one of its body lotions. In the ad, a black woman pulls
off her brown T-shirt, revealing a white woman in a cream
shirt. (In the full GIF, the white woman pulls her shirt off
to reveal a woman with a more olive complexion, but there’s
still something queasy about the campaign and its tagline, “100% Gentle cleansers.”) “We missed
the mark in thoughtfully representing women of color and we
regret the offense that it has caused,” representatives for
Dove said on Facebook after the company pulled the ad.

And this past April, Nivea got
in trouble for an ill-advised ad campaign for its
stain-free deodorant. Initially posted on Nivea’s Middle
Eastern Facebook page, the ad depicted a woman sitting with
her back facing the audience in a crisp, white shirt. The
tagline? “White Is Purity.”

Unsurprisingly, Twitter and Facebook users went
after Nivea. (The Facebook posting included the caption
“Keep it clean, keep it bright. Don’t let anything ruin it.”)
White supremacist groups praised
the ad, saying that “Nivea has chosen our side.” Nivea pulled
the ad the following day and apologized, explaining that it
was a part of a broader campaign for the deodorant in the
Middle East, implying that a North American (or white)
audience wasn’t actually supposed to see it. This isn’t the
first time Nivea has weathered a similar scandal; in 2011, it
pulled and apologized
for a promotion featuring a black man throwing away
his own severed head with an afro and beard, along with the
tagline “Re-Civilize Yourself.”

Courtesy of Dove / Via giphy, courtesy of Nivea

The controversial Dove ad (left). An ad for Nivea

These are the most prominent examples of skin care campaigns
gone racist, but if you look broadly at the company’s
international marketing, you’ll find other ads that overtly
(if more diplomatically) praise and prioritize whiteness. An
ad for Nivea
deodorant in India promised “visibly fairer and smoother
underarms” that will give you “the confidence to be
yourself.” Nivea’s Middle East YouTube
page promotes a number of the company’s “Natural
Fairness” products to keep your skin lighter. Nivea
Philippines suggests “Extra White Body Cream” in order to
“get whiter
where you want!”

The racial coding of these ads isn’t as blatant as “White Is
Purity,” but it is representative of the way skin care
companies subtly calibrate their language when trying to
market whitening products. Most North Americans are familiar
with lotions, toners, or scrubs that “brighten” skin,
products that are supposed to reveal a version of your skin
that’s more glowing and “radiant.” But those products, or
products like them, are sold in different regions by the same
companies with just slightly different terminology.
Brightening becomes whitening, and the pursuit of radiance
becomes the pursuit of fair skin.

The phrasing around skin lightening products in North America
isn’t different from the marketing in other countries because
North Americans consumers are less racist, or because the
North American beauty industry is less obsessed with
whiteness as the highest form of beauty: It’s just because
we’re more concerned with whether we appear racist.
Consumers who were shocked by Nivea’s Middle East division
promoting a deodorant with racist language were only
surprised because they are rarely exposed to the language of
beauty campaigns in countries where white people are not the
majority. With these products, as in seemingly all things,
our first priority isn’t dismantling our elevation of
whiteness when it comes to beauty and status, but rather
pretending that elevation isn’t happening at all.

Whitening products aren’t a new trend — plenty of
communities have history with skin bleaching or home remedies
intended to lighten the skin. Fair & Lovely, a
lightening cream primarily sold in India, has become a
cultural touchpoint for many brown women. Black women are
often marketed to
directly by cosmetics companies that make lightening or
bleaching products. Plus, communities of color often have
their own “cures” for darker skin whose ingredients vary from
the natural (turmeric or honey) to the possibly carcinogenic
(mercury). There’s also a long tradition of trying to suss
out which celebrities might have bleached their skin: Sammy
Sosa has undergone a very
obvious change in complexion (which he admits
to), Lil’ Kim’s skin is noticeably
lighter (though she somewhat
denies it), and — Beyhive forgive me — there are even
conspiracy theories that Beyoncé
is paler than she was a decade ago (which Beyoncé, of course,
does not address).

Cosmetics companies in other countries aren’t under the same
legal obligation as they are in the US to reveal their full
ingredient lists, but most over-the-counter products — which
are rarely labeled as skin bleachers — include some
ingredient that could lighten your skin, even in the US.
Those active ingredients vary from things you’d find in the
kitchen to something like hydroquinone, which is only allowed
in very low levels for nonprescription skin care.
(Prescription skin lighteners can include more of that active

Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images, Romain Maurice

Sammy Sosa in 2009 (left) and 2016 (right).

Skin bleachers often have more potent ingredients like
mercury or steroids, some of which are banned
in certain countries, including the US. Skin lightening or
brightening products, meanwhile, are often sold over the
counter, and suggest a more subtle shift in your skin tone
(brighter rather than whiter) than flat-out bleaching. A lot
of them are “natural” or “organic” since ingredients like
citrus or liquorice root can also lighten the skin. These
ingredients aren’t as potent as the ones you’d find in
prescription bleachers, but they can make your skin fairer
with extended use.

Part of the trouble with discussing brightening, whitening,
or lightening products is that because those terms aren’t
clearly defined, the marketing language isn’t regulated. Dr.
Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist in Mount Sinai’s Department
of Dermatology in New York, considers whether the product
bleaches or lifts stains from the skin in the same way you
might evaluate how stains are removed from clothes when
trying to make sense of these definitions. “When you have
hyperpigmentation, you can actually bleach, meaning you’re
preventing and interfering with the skin’s ability to make
pigment,” she says. “Lightening is a bit different where
you’re not bleaching or preventing the skin from making its
pigment, but what you’re trying to do is to get the basic
pigment to leave a little bit faster, sort of lift the stain,
but you’re not interfering with the body’s pigment
mechanism.” In other words, bleaching products will make it
difficult to tan, since they affect your skin’s ability to
create color. With brightening or lightening products, you
can still form pigment.

Within the designation of lightening, or brightening, or even
whitening, there are no real rules about what companies can
or can’t say. “There’s no hard definition as to why one would
use one label over the other, even though they are very
different terms,” Nazarian says. “One can kind of interchange

Although skin brightening products are ubiquitous across the
globe, the way those products are marketed varies widely,
depending on the market or the intended consumer. Skin
lightening in countries like India, the Philippines, and
China is often linked to the ideas of protecting
your skin from the sun, revealing a better, whiter you, and connecting
paler skin with marriageability or attractiveness. The
Korean market is often interested in looking “porcelain” or
youthful. For black and Latinx people, marketing for skin
lightening products often references hyperpigmentation of
certain body parts (lips,
for example) while also noting that the products don’t
contain harmful chemicals, like a lot of traditional
bleaching products do.

Within the designation of lightening, or brightening, or even
whitening, there are no real rules about what companies can
or can’t say.

In North America, the same big companies that sell lightening
or whitening products overseas — like Nivea, Vaseline,
L’Oréal, Neutrogena, Dove, Pond’s, and Garnier — instead
market spot treatments and “brightening” products, devoid of
specific wording about skin lightening. The marketing
language for these similar kinds of products is less about
getting fairer skin and more about “detoxing” or getting an
“even” skin tone, words that suggest more of a focus on
health than skin color. (And it’s difficult to find brands
that don’t engage in this sort of doublespeak with
over-the-counter products, partly because so many beauty
brands are owned by the same parent companies. Nivea and La
Prairie are owned by Beiersdorf. Fair & Lovely, Dove, and
Vaseline are all owned by Unilever. L’Oréal owns more
cosmetics companies than you’d think, including YSL and

For example, Nivea Q10 Firming Body Oil, sold in Australia and Canada,
promises to “even out your skin tone,” but Nivea
Philippines UV Whitening Body Serum “delivers intense
whitening” while repairing sun damage. These products aren’t
necessarily the same thing — we can’t know without the full
ingredients lists — but they do promise similar results with
tweaked language. Neutrogena sells a Fine Fairness Overnight
Brightening Cream in its Asian markets. (Neutrogena
representatives told BuzzFeed News that you can’t buy the
product in North America, but if you look hard enough you can
find it on Amazon.) In the US, you can buy its Naturals
Brightening Daily Moisturizer, which contains
“skin-brightening lemon peel” and possibly reduces “the look
of skin discoloration for visibly brighter, even-toned skin.”
Dove, which created a US beauty campaign specifically
dedicated to telling women they’re just fine
as they are, sells a deodorant in North America that
armpits after they get darker, apparently, from excessive
shaving. And while FDA regulations make it mandatory for
companies like L’Oréal or Nivea to list all ingredients in US
products, equivalent agencies are not obligated to do the
same for similar products sold in places like India or the
Philippines. It’s very possible their overseas products have
ingredients that aren’t allowed in the US. (Conversely, there
are ingredients in US-sold sunscreens that aren’t allowed in
other countries.)

nivea / Via screenshot, Dove / Via screenshot

While niche brands are perhaps more honest about the
intention of these skin care products, larger companies
generally lean toward euphemism in their language. They seem
to be targeting both people of color who are wary of a
cultural bias toward lighter skin within their communities,
and white people who are maybe less familiar, and less
comfortable, with their preferred cosmetics brand getting
into the whitening game.

Some skin care products can even be physically dangerous.
Skin lighteners can cause both temporary and long-term damage
to your body. We know what kinds of ingredients are in the
brighteners sold in the US, but the same can’t be said for
those products you purchase overseas. “I can tell you almost
assuredly you’re not going to find 100% equal product
ingredients,” Dr. Nazarian says. “A lot of the products I
have seen coming from other countries, the result I’m seeing
on my patients would indicate [that] a higher level contain
bleaching agent.”

Regulations vary by country, but no region is entirely immune
to the health risks of the worst kinds of bleaching creams.
In 2010, the New
York Times reported that dermatologists across the US
were seeing Hispanic and black women with severe side effects
from skin lightening creams, “many with prescription-strength
ingredients,” in products like Hyprogel and Fair & White.
In 2015, the Ivory Coast
banned skin whitening creams, products like Femme Libre,
because of their potential health effects. Some of those
effects are minor irritations like inflammation, redness,
burning, or flaking skin. In more
extreme cases, whitening creams with hydroquinone,
corticosteroids, or mercury can cause hypertension, kidney or
liver damage, thin skin, or — if used while pregnant — birth

No matter the product, the intention is the same: to make
skin whiter. “It’s always to make skin whiter. Whiter in the
sense of less pigment. Less pigment means more white,” Dr.
Nazarian says. “It’s not lightening here and whitening there,
I think that’s just the terms they feel the people understand
in each culture. It makes money.”

Downplaying the true nature of these products has social
ramifications, too. It allows companies to passively
reinforce white ideals as beauty norms — ones we’ve had for
centuries, long before beautification became its own industry
— without explicitly acknowledging the benefits of
perpetuating them. And in buying the products described with
these euphemisms, white consumers don’t have to contend with
the reality that the whiter your skin, the more beautiful
you’re often considered to be.

Colonial standards of beauty for women have existed
for a lot longer than products like Fair & Lovely have
been available at drugstores. “These kinds of products have
been around for a very long time, but mostly on an informal
level,” says Margaret Hunter, a professor of sociology at
Mills College. As the middle class has grown in countries
like Brazil, India, and China, so has the cosmetics
industry’s interest in reaching out to them. “It became in
the interest of cosmetics companies to start marketing these
products,” says Hunter. Thanks to colonialism, fairer skin
still reads as a symbol
of class and wealth. (Religion can play a part in this, too:
Deities in Hinduism are often shown with light,
glowy skin. Ravana, a symbol of evil, is often depicted
with darker skin, hair, and eyes.)

In early 20th century, women in the US began using more skin
care products daily. “For the products aimed at white women,
it would often be about getting rid of freckles … getting
rid of skin that looked ‘dull’ and making it look brighter,”
says Susannah Walker, author of Style and Status: Selling
Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975.
black people with fairer skin, dating from slavery days, were
treated better by their white masters and, later, employers,
which helped create a market for skin lightening products for
black people. In the early 20th century, prominent black
entrepreneurs who focused on hair care for black women, like
Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Malone, started getting into the
skin care game.

Neither was interested in getting into skin bleaching and
lightening powders, but other black-owned companies did.
(After Walker died in 1919, the Walker Company introduced a product called “Tan-Off.”) This
perhaps led to more white-owned companies marketing directly
to black people. According to Pageants, Parlors, and
Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century
by Blain Roberts, Nadinola, a bleaching cream
product that’s still sold today, would run advertisements in
black newspapers.

“The company connected light skin with social status,
contending that Nadinola had lightened a socialite’s skin
‘three shades’ and finally given her the ‘fashionable light
skin of other girls,’” Roberts writes. (Later, in the ’60s,
ran an ad in Ebony with a black woman wearing hoop
earrings and an afro with the tagline “Black is beautiful,” a
craven attempt to tell its market audience — black women —
that they’re already attractive while also selling them
something to improve themselves.)

Classic Film / Flickr

Ads for Nadinola over the years.

During the 20th century, both black- and white-owned
companies adopted language that focused on class and social
standing, rather than whiteness, as the ideal. “Both types of
companies, increasingly, are using a more ambiguous and
complex language around the products,” Walker says.

Joanne Rondilla, the author of Is Lighter Better?:
Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans
and a
professor at Sonoma State University, believes that the shift
in language across markets is largely about who is or isn’t
comfortable with already present racial hierarchies. Her
research focuses on language used in cosmetics advertising,
largely in the Philippines, where words like “White Perfect”
are often applied to market skin products. (Nivea’s
Philippines website, for example, has an entire section for
& Beauty,” with one product called “Extra White.”)
“When you consider the colonial history of the Philippines,
and this notion of white and perfection, the product is sold
as if continuing colonial language,” she says. “You can use
the term ‘white’ in the Philippines because it’s understood
this is what you aspire to.”

Thanks to colonialism, fairer skin still reads as a symbol of
class and wealth.

It’s too simplistic to say that countries outside of North
America are more comfortable with blatant anti-blackness when
it comes to advertising skin lightening products, but they do
tend to use more literal black-and-white language in their
marketing. “I wouldn’t say the people in the United States,
that blacks, Latinos, or Asians in the United States, are
immune to those kinds of colonial pressures,” says Hunter.
“But I think because of social movements here, like the Black
Power movement and Black Is Beautiful, there’s a kind of
hesitancy around wanting to actually identify as white.
Instead people think, I wouldn’t mind my skin a little
lighter or my nose being a little taller

In the North American market, most companies still think of
white women as their default clientele. “When cosmetics
companies visualize who their target market is, it’s not an
Asian woman or a Filipino woman. It’s a white woman. Telling
a white woman to retain her whiteness, it means something
different in the US,” Rondilla says. And white consumers
aren’t likely to respond to a product that explicitly claims
to stifle melanin production, because it’s not a real concern
for them.

Whitening products across the board in North America and on
the other side of the world both do, however, engage with
ideas of hygiene or detox. “It connects with the idea of
hygiene, this idea that whiteness and cleanliness go together
and that black or brownness are dirty,” says Hunter. “A lot
of the old-fashioned remedies were about scrubbing the
darkness out of your skin.” Hygiene advertising
comes with the suggestion that darker skin is dirty and
unattractive, or even that it might smell bad or cause
revulsion if anyone else has to see it. Detoxing is
essentially the same idea, repackaged for white women: a much
nicer word that suggests you’re simply helping your body
return to its natural, healthy state.

The fact that North American consumers don’t see a ton
of products flaunting their whitening qualities may come down
to white fragility more than anything else. “No one wants to
think about their beauty process as participating in legacies
of white supremacy,” Rondilla says. “Race speak is only
acceptable if white people can find a way out of their
privilege.” Ultimately, white people are uncomfortable with
being reminded that beauty standards are still controlled by
concepts of whiteness, regardless of your race. You’re still
more likely to be considered
attractive or get that
job you want if you’re fairer skinned, and white
consumers aren’t the ones who actually suffer from that

Nayani Thiyagarajah is a director, producer, and documentary
filmmaker based in Toronto. Her documentary Shadeism
looks at colorism among indigenous, black, and other POC
communities. “I’m from Sri Lanka and in the context of Sri
Lanka, having experienced European colonial powers, I think
that impacts ideas of shadeism and makes it worse,” she says.
Thiyagarajah notices that language is blunter in Sri Lanka.
“When they say someone is lighter skinned in Tamil, they say
veḷḷai, which is white. If she’s getting darker, they
say karuppu, which means getting blacker,” she says.
“The language itself is so straight-up and matter of fact,
and rooted in an anti-black racism.”

“You can use the term ‘white’ in the Philippines because it’s
understood this is what you aspire to.”

The idea that it’s one thing to be brown or tan but another
(worse) thing to be black is a real anxiety for a lot of
South Asian communities. The language in advertising there
may be less delicate, but even when people of color see
cosmetics ads marketed to white people, they can read the
code. “A lot of South Asians or other folks of color, when
they see the word brightening, they know what that means
automatically. It’s close enough without offending white
people,” says Thiyagarajah.

But the public controversies around marketing like this are
sure to keep bubbling up: The internet has changed companies’
abilities to control their own message by region. The barrier
between what’s sold in India and what’s sold in the US — and
how — is far more permeable. Think back to 2016, when a
Lancôme Blanc Expert ad campaign featuring Emma Watson
viral: Plenty of people on Facebook were furious that the
actress was promoting what turned out to be a skin whitener.
But the campaign featuring Watson — and to be clear,
celebrities often don’t have control over the language used
in different countries when they sign on for beauty campaigns
— was specifically targeted to women in Asian
countries. (Lancôme called the Blanc Expert range “the
No. 1 whitening brand in Asia.”) The spillover when the
campaign went viral in the US, five years after it initially
launched, showed how tricky it can be for cosmetics companies
to fully control their own messaging now.


A 2011 Lancôme ad for a skin lightening product featuring
Emma Watson.

L’Oréal Luxe (parent company of L’Oréal Paris, Vichy,
Lancôme) and Neutrogena did not respond to multiple requests
for comment for this story. Germany-based Beiersdorf (parent
company of Eucerin, Labello, and Nivea) provided a comment
through a third-party PR firm: “Beiersdorf is a global
company with affiliates worldwide. Each affiliate operates
independently and has different product offerings that are
tailored to the needs of that specific market,” it said. “The
products you referred to are not sold in Canada or the US. We
take pride in creating products that promote beauty in all
forms around the world.”

A Unilever spokesperson also provided BuzzFeed News with a
statement via email. “We recognise that the marketing of
these products has sometimes insinuated the notion that dark
skin is undesirable,” it says. “We have strict marketing
principles that explicitly state that we will not make any
association between skin tone and a person’s achievement,
potential or worth.” (Fair & Lovely, whose parent company
is Unilever, features ads in which women become famous, men
become more
attractive to women, and everyone gets noticed for their
looks.) “Our portfolio of brands is designed to respond
to the diverse wishes of consumers around the world,”
Unilever says. “Even-toned and lighter skin remains the most
sought-after beauty desire across Asia and parts of Africa
and Latin America.”

Indeed, Unilever and similar beauty companies sell these
products largely because there’s still a market for them
around the world. The availability of skin brightening
products proves that whiteness is still considered the ideal.
And the way advertising language in North America obscures
this fact shows how unwilling North Americans are to
acknowledge their participation in it. Companies like Nivea
have been quick to apologize when an overseas ad is deemed
racist in the US, but other than frustrated consumers on
Twitter, there’s little internal discussion about the forces
that led these companies to draft it to begin with.

The ethics of using brightening or lightening products are
complicated, partly because even a product that simply
protects your skin from the sun could, technically, be
considered a lightener. “The threshold of what a skin
lightener is is so low,” Rondilla says. “A sunscreen is a
skin lightener; an antioxidant, something with vitamins A, E,
and C, is a skin lightener. It forces us to think about what
we are using and why we are using it.”

For most people who use cosmetics or skin care products
daily, it would be impossible to eradicate the language or
the history of whiteness as the ideal from our beautification
routines. What may be now more important is determining what
your intention is when you use a product. “I use my sunscreen
every day because for me it’s about protection,” Rondilla
says. “Are you perfecting or are you protecting?” ●

Scaachi Koul is a Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and is
based in Toronto.

Contact Scaachi Koul at

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