First things first, in black and white—and all the greys. The science is as dubious as the sociology. The Indian market is flooded with fairness products. If all of them had made the promised effect, we’d have become a country of Icelanders—close to realising again that old pop notion of the North Pole having been in India. “The truth should be out,” says Paras Jain, a Delhi law student, who is on the verge of securing a verdict that could forever change the way personal care products and fairness creams market themselves in India—even if attitudinal changes will take longer.
Voiceover: Satata Karmakar; Script: Siddhartha Mishra; Edited by Suraj Wadhwa
Depending on the verdict, the industry could still find grey areas to work around the law. But from an uncontrolled run, it has at least come to a pass where a willingness to question their claims—and the collective inferiority complex it panders to—is visible. Bollywood actor Abhay Deol unleashed a refreshing send-up of his colleagues just last week for endorsing fairness products. But the legal story began in 2013, when young Paras decided to take on the Rs 10,000-crore personal care giant, Emami Ltd. A two-and-a-half-year court battle awaited him, but he was firm on seeing it through.
Paras was goaded into this by his brother Nikhil’s experience with a product called Fair and Handsome. The fairness cream, which Nikhil believed would eventually make his skin tone lighter with diligent use, hadn’t made a whit of a difference in years. For a looks-conscious young adult, this naturally was cause for a great deal of frustration. But Paras, who had just been initiated into the world of torts and the Consumer Protection Act, saw more than a random failure. For him, this was a “seriously unfair trade practice”. How is it, he muttered to himself, that cosmetic companies get away with “lies, damn lies”.
The budding lawyer decided to step into the courts even before he was a graduate. Since it didn’t require a lawyer to initiate a plea in a consumer court, Paras did the honours himself and sued Emami Ltd for selling a product (Fair and Handsome) that just wouldn’t do what it promised to. “The first thing that came to my mind is…this is unfair, this is cheating. Fairness creams don’t work,” he says. What’s worse, Emami Ltd claimed the product had a ‘technology’—which they called “American peptide”—that ensured it settled deep into the skin and made a person fair in four weeks flat.
The product he had taken on had created for itself a big brand cachet. In a now-withdrawn ad for Fair and Handsome, Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan is seen talking about how he toiled to make it big as a movie star. He then tosses a tube of Fair and Handsome to a dark-looking man, suggesting it would help him get ahead in life. In real life, thousands of Nikhils would have fallen for it. “I was keen on seeing how a judge would look at this. So I pleaded before the district consumer court that Emami had duped my brother with its product,” Paras said.
Things got interesting when Emami joined the case and claimed there was scientific evidence to demonstrate its product worked. It submitted tests from private labs and individual experts. But the verdict by the north Delhi district consumer court in 2015, not surprisingly, was damning. “It uses the word ‘gorapan’ in advertisement No. 1, which means ‘fair complexion’,” the court ruled. “This is in direct contrast with the defence taken by the OP (opposing party, i.e Emami Ltd) wherein it has claimed that the use of the product improves the health and quality of skin by providing protection and nourishment to the facial and neck skin which are more exposed to the vagaries of nature: sunlight, dust, wind, etc.”
Then came the operative part of the damning verdict. “We are therefore of the considered opinion that the advertisements published by the OP as referred to above make a misrepresentation to the public at large about the effectiveness of the product to change the complexion of the skin from dark to wheatish or wheatish to fair.”
The consumer forum ordered Emami to pay damages of Rs 15 lakh, besides Rs 10,000 towards legal costs. Since the company’s lawyer had argued that the case may have been brought with an eye on lucrative compensation money, Paras said he did not want a paisa other than the cost of litigation of two years. The court then asked Emami to deposit the Rs 15 lakh in the state-run consumer welfare fund. It also asked Emami to withdraw all ads with the “fairness” hook. Emami, which has gone into appeal at the next level of consumer courts, did not respond to Outlook’s e-mail query.
All this while, scientific evidence has been in plenty short supply on whether fairness creams work at all—and if so, how. Globally, few studies have been carried out to discern if cosmetic non-prescription products can have an impact on skin tone. Not a very satisfactory situation from a consumer rights point of view because, as market research firm Euromonitor International says, the potential market is still very large as “products still have only a limited penetration”.
A May 2016 report by Euromonitor, titled ‘Beauty and Personal Care in India’, says demand is being driven by factors such as “rising disposable incomes, increasing product penetration, the growth of modern retailers, increasing awareness of beauty and personal care products, the rising aspirations of consumers, and strong economic growth”. As a result, it states, the industry’s constant value growth over the forecast period is expected to be higher than during the review period. Firms such as L’Oreal, Unilever, Lakme, Maybellene, Emami and Nivea control a majority of the sales pie.
The science, however, is sketchy. “There is not much study possible anyway in the West because you can’t test their efficacy on people who are naturally fair. So, whatever study you have to do, you have to do on Asian skin types,” says Dr Monika Agarwal, who teaches pharmacology at New Delhi’s Maulana Azad Medical College.
Agarwal and her colleague Vandana Roy conducted a landmark clinical study to test the efficacy of fairness products. Their results were published in the peer-reviewed Indian Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012. Its objective was to assess the composition, pharmacological basis of various constituents, cost and scientific evidence for claims made for the efficacy of three commonly used fairness creams. For reasons of objectivity, the brands weren’t disclosed. The total number of individual constituents was 54; of these, 14 were common in all three creams, while seven more were common in two creams. The study recorded 22 pharmacological actions.
About 85 per cent of the ingredients in fairness creams are sunscreens, moisturisers, skin softeners and emollients or opacifying agents. It is the opacifying agents in a fairness cream that make users appear instantly brighter. Only 15 per cent of the constituents directly affected melanin synthesis—and on a temporary basis at that. This means their chemical activity has some short-term potential to suppress melanin, the pigment that makes people appear dark.
Law student Paras Jain took Emami to consumer court
According to the study, the most common constituents in fairness creams were stearic and palmitic acid, glycerine, titanium dioxide, tocopheryl acetate, octyl methoxy cinnamate, cetyl alcohol, dimethicon, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben, disodium EDTA, water and perfume. So what exactly are these? Stearic and palmitic acid are emollients or, simply, skin conditioners. Titanium dioxide is both a sunscreen and an opacifying agent. Tocopheryl acetate is a vitamin E derivative. Cetyl alcohol is also an opacifier. Dimethicone is a lubricant and conditioning agent.
The authors report that four ingredients act on melanin. These are niacinamide, a vitamin of the B group, apart from sodium ascorbyl phosphate (a water-soluble form of vitamin C), ascorbyl glucosidase (which releases vitamin C) and salicylic acid, which is present in a weak strength and helps melt the topmost layer of skin. Yet, the conclusions of the study on the effect on skin tone were quite simple and unambiguous. “They only make you look fairer for a very short duration by coating your skin and certainly don’t work significantly at an epithelial or cellular level,” says Agarwal.
Globally, hydroquinone is the only agent that is proven to work on melanin. “It’s a prescription-only product, meaning a doctor must write out the prescription for it. A clinical diagnosis of pigmentation must be made. It’s not a cosmetic,” says Dr Poornima Chawla, a dermatologist. While Europe has banned it for fears that it can be potentially cancer-causing, it is available for sale in US and India. The US Food and Drug Administration is of the view that existing studies haven’t conclusively established that hydroquinone can cause cancer in humans, although it has been shown to be carcinogenic in some rat species. So it has ordered a fresh long-term study before taking a call. Chawla says there’s no guarantee this prescription-only drug isn’t sold without a doctor’s prescription when every other medicine is sold freely.
It’s not just the science that’s troubling. A society ill at ease with its own genes means it is reflexively prone to valuing the fairer end of the spectrum in every field. The marriage market is almost organised, socially sanctified eugenics. Calendar divinities, descended from Ravi Varma depictions, are uniformly rosy—even Krishna gets the whitening treatment these days. And popular films have almost uniformly been in denial of the magnetic attraction of dark skin that was always acknowledged in traditional culture.
In fact, the candy shop pantheon of toffee-coloured heroines and heroes—the duskier ones painted over—are partly held responsible by critics for this aspiration. Popular cinema has long depicted, as film-maker Satyajit Ray once said, an “India that doesn’t exist”. But you can’t blame individual actors or actresses for being themselves on screen. Yet, tragically, even the biggest film stars have had no qualms going beyond that and appearing in ads that promote the idea that fairer skin gets you a headstart in life.
The effect all this constant incantation on popular media has can be quite devastating. A sense of rejection and negative prestige can stalk those who are made to feel inferior on account of skin tone. Darker-skinned women have often killed themselves. In 2014, police in Haryana said a woman from Gurgaon’s Jyoti Park locality hanged herself because her husband would abuse her for being dark. In West Bengal’s East Midnapore district, schoolteacher Brototi Das set herself on fire the same year, as her parents weren’t able to get her married because of her skin colour.
Children are the less-noticed victims. Raised on a cultural belief that ‘wheatish’ is desirable, young people often have “shocking levels” of low self-esteem and undetected depression, says Kavitha Emmanuel, director of Women of Worth, the Chennai-based non-profit behind the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. Women of Worth is engaged in fighting this prejudice in a country that is by reflex, and often consciously, racist—a unique racism that is directed against oneself as much as the other.
Teenagers face taunts from within peer circles—school and neighbourhood friends—leaving them psychologically traumatised, her organisation found in a survey. Girls preparing for marriage devote a lot of time and resources to appear fair. One study, in the South Asia Gynaecological Review, found urban Indian women blocking off sun to avoid tanning were more likely to develop ostoeoporosis, or brittle bones. They are prone to have lower levels of vitamin D, needed for good bone health, for which sunlight is necessary.
It’s not just women who feel the need to be fair. Men have taken to grooming and beauty with a lot of gusto—and chasing fairness is part of that. “Interestingly, men who fall in the age-group of 18 to 25 spend more money on grooming and personal care products than women in India,” Assocham chief D.S. Rawat says. The cultural fixation, naturally, means big business. Fairness cream sales are growing at an annual clip of 18 per cent, according to a Nielsen report. The business is worth Rs 27,000 crore, according to Rncos e-services, a market research firm.
Pull out any living-room chest drawer in India and you could just find a twisted metal tube of a used-up fairness cream. The love affair is an old one. Hark back to 1978, when Hindustan Unilever launched Fair and Lovely in a country just past the seismic political events of Emergency rule and well before it was to embrace market economy. It has since metamorphosed into a talismanic product.
What is it about dark then? The old metaphors in India around dark could be fairly positive—unlike in English, a ‘dark cloud’ in any Indian language would betoken a thrilling sight. How could it not, in a sun-parched country? Was it a sense of inferiority brought on by the colonial encounter? Or did the miscegenation of centuries produce a hierarchy internally? “It’s an alien invasion…something external taking over…you know what I mean,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, who studies culture and sexuality and believes Brahmin girls would often be dissuaded from having coffee for fear it would make them dark. “It’s a bottled utopia. A lot of these products are used by plantation workers. We think black is an inferior colour. Just look at the number of fair Punjabi actresses in south Indian cinema. All this beats me clean.”
Not everybody believes in this “bottled utopia”. But they are a tiny minority militating against an ingrained prejudice. When a news website published a story on Monisha Rajesh, author of the travelogue Around the World in 80 Trains, she wasn’t pleased at all. Rather, she was infuriated. The problem wasn’t bad press, but a badly done profile photograph. She looked lighter and “so green” in a strange sort of way. It was an airbrush overkill by the photo editor trying to make her look fair. “I need no favour with whitening,” she wrote. That wasn’t her. Monisha got the photograph replaced. She was happy being who she was: a naturally dark woman.