Why We Need to Stop Linking Beauty and Success With ‘Fair’ Skin

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Why We Need to Stop Linking Beauty and Success With ‘Fair’ Skin

From depictions of 'suitable' marriage partners in Netflix series Indian Matchmaking to the on-going popularity of skin-lightening creams, colourism remains rife in certain communities. Here, writer Ayesha Muttucumaru details her complicated relationship with the word ‘fair’ – and why calling out shade bias is vital.

'They dropped the F-Bomb.' From the moment my mum and I started watching Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, we felt it would only be a matter of time until the word that makes us wince like no other was uttered. The term in question? No, not a four lettered expletive, but something far more insidious. 'Fair.’

As you might know, the docu-series follows ‘Mumbai’s top matchmaker,’ Sima Taparia, as she helps a range of single people in India and the US, with the help of their families, find their future wife or husband. The format has proven divisive. Criticisms levied by certain members of the Indian diaspora on Twitter include that some of the show's participants engage in caste-discrimintion, mostly using euphemistic terms ('from a good family', 'similar backgrounds'), as well as colourism (a prejudice or discrimination towards those with dark skin that usually occurs within the same ethnic group).

The latter is seen when some participants request a match with 'fair' skin. As well as affecting those with darker complexions in south Asian communities, it should be noted that attitudes such as these can lead people down a dangerous road to anti-Blackness.

These statements, some said, go unchallenged by Taparia, which could lead to the normalisation or affirmation of such views. (Speaking to The Cut, Smriti Mundhra, the show's executive producer, said that she welcomes critique: 'We’re now at a point where we can actually hold representation to a higher standard and push for better and more nuanced stories. I want to be held accountable. Push me so I can push too.')

Why the word 'fair' is problematic

As to why the word 'fair' is an issue? Short story: it is not just seen as a way to denote someone’s appearance, but a character trait, having become synonymous with a person’s place in society, their chances of professional success, status and self-worth. The connotations go far beyond the superficial.

Sounds archaic, right? However, seeing one US-based show contestant casually list: 'not too dark' and 'fair skin' as a preferred 'want' in a potential partner was a stark reminder that colourism seems to be very much alive and kicking, even in my millennial generation.

The history of colourism in south Asian communities

Colonialism and the caste system are two of the reasons attributed to enduring colourist attitudes, as is the way skin colour is portrayed in the film industry, the media and by beauty brands. One notable example is the 'fairness' cream Fair & Lovely whose advertisements in India have historically implied that fair skin might help you meet the person of your dreams, or finally get that job you've always desired. It’s also not unusual to spot top Bollywood actors and actresses promoting these products.

It’s a mindset that is deep-seated in the South Asian community. Growing up, I was extremely fortunate to have parents that didn’t buy into the fairness BS. However, I soon realised that my experiences were quite unusual, highlighted when I’d observe the experiences of South Asian friends and when I’d go to Sri Lanka on holiday, (where my family is from). There, adverts promoting fairness as the beauty ideal were commonplace.

Preferences for light skin were still clearly evident in the UK, too: the sole Asian representative in a beauty campaign being almost always light skinned.

Speaking to other South Asians who work in the beauty industry, for me, has proven therapeutic. 'Growing up, it was incredibly "normal" to hear that fair skin was to be coveted,' recalls consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. 'Relatives would dissuade me from going outdoors or warn me not to get tanned on holiday. "You’ve become so dark" after a trip away was a common criticism to be faced with; fair skin carried currency.'

Skin-lightening is a global issue

From South Asia to China, the Middle East and Africa, skin-lightening is still big business. Fair & Lovely brings in around $317m in annual revenue, making it India’s biggest-selling skin-lightening cream, and research firm Global Industry Analysts estimates that the international market for skin-lightening cosmetics could reach $12.3 billion dollars by 2027. A World Health Organisation study also revealed that a staggering 77% of Nigerian women reported using skin-lightening products regularly – the world’s highest percentage.

Dr Tijion Esho is a cosmetic doctor, and member of the Black Aesthetics Advisory Board. He's Nigerian, and grew up in the UK.

He remembers going to visit Nigeria with his parents and seeing skin-lightening products 'all the time' in adverts and hardly ever seeing dark-skinned main characters in Bollywood films [which are popular among some Nigerian audiences]. 'A higher level of social class was associated with having lighter skin', he tells me. 'It was hard to escape the association of skin tone with professional success when the biggest roles and greater screen time were given to those who were considered "fair." '

'It was the same in Europe too, the more European-looking you were, the more of a chance you had of progressing and being accepted.'

Dr Esho still sees patients from Black and Asian communities coming into his clinic asking to lighten their entire skin tone. When it becomes clear that this is what they’re trying to do, he tries to re-educate them as to why this outlook is so problematic and can be harmful. Dr Mahto agrees that she would take a similar tack, after a thorough consultation ('I personally do not believe it is ethical to offer treatments which may do this,' she tells me.)

Elsewhere, Black Aesthetics Advisory member Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme and her team conduct body dysmorphia screenings with patients before agreeing to treat any of them. In her experience, some people seeking to lighten all of their skin fall into this category. 'In that case, I know that I won’t be able to help them, no matter what I give them,' she says. Anyone who has body dysmorphia is referred for help to identify and address the underlying issue.

Time for change

Anger towards what skin-lightening creams represent has been simmering for years. However, things seem to have come to a head in the past few months, due, in part, to the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was African-American, at the hands of a white police officer. Recently, cosmetics companies around the world have been re-evaluating their product ranges. L’Oreal, for example, has said that it’ll stop using the words such as, ‘fair,’ ‘fairness,’ ‘light’ and ‘lightening’ on its products.

Unilever (which owns Fair & Lovely) announced that it would be re-branding the product to Glow & Lovely. 'We recognise that the use of the words "fair", "white" and "light" suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don't think is right, and we want to address this,' the company said in a statement.

However, Glow & Lovely will still have the same ingredients, and, as such, is still the same product. Also, ‘glow’-boosting products range from exfoliators that slough off dead skin cells to retinols, which increase cell turnover, so the fact that ‘glow’ is now used to include a skin-lightening cream, to me, is confusing.

'I'm unconvinced that the renaming will have an impact on colourism and its impact on mental health,' psychologist Natasha Tiwari, who is British Indian, tells me. 'For communities where colourism is the elephant in the room, and for many, an elephant trampling all over their self-esteem, they will still call the product "Fair & Lovely" out of habit.'

She adds: 'Colourism may have been perpetuated by commercial products and various facets of the film and entertainment industry, but its foundations are in cultural practices and beliefs which are rooted in as much as thousands of years of history, when considering South Asian communities. Replacing "fair" with "glow" is still problematic, and for those mindful of its impact on individuals and communities, this gesture is transparent.'

Is banning skin-lightening creams the answer?

While some argue that outlawing sales of skin-lightening creams could halt the flow of the issue, I'm not fully convinced. This measure could help, but, as I see it, unless the underlying causes are addressed, colourism is rooted out in our communities and we address internalised racism within ourselves, getting rid of the supply won’t necessarily affect demand – and provide the long-term change that’s needed.

Some experts also point out that an outright ban could increase the use of illegal and harmful skin-bleaching creams as a substitute, because the issue is so deep-rooted. The doctors and dermatologists that I spoke to told me that their clientele includes patients suffering with the after-effects of using bleaching creams, such as chemical burns, scarring, thinning of the skin, hyperpigmentation, severe acne and stretch-marks on the body.

Representation in the companies that produce these products is also imperative. 'Companies can’t make decisions about Black and minority groups without including them in the process,' Dr Esho says. 'That’s where it goes wrong and that’s why the Black Aesthetics Advisory Board was created. Involve us in that process, and that’s how you’ll get things right for us going forward.'

How to talk about colourism

Closer to home, when it comes to dealing with colourist comments from family members or friends, call them out whenever you hear them and get comfortable with the prospect of having uncomfortable conversations – including with yourself. Complicity just keeps the colourism cycle going. 'Keep it simple,' recommends Natasha. 'When someone says something that offends or upsets you, say that it hurts your feelings, or that it is upsetting to you because you know it is hurtful to others.'

Expect a level of defensiveness. 'This is absolutely an issue that it is right to be sensitive over, and you should take courage in saying so,' says Natasha. 'If you feel you can, question those who make colourist comments about where their beliefs really come from.

'Often, those making hurtful comments do so without any understanding of why they do, or where they inherited the idea from. By challenging people to consider if this belief is truly theirs, you can be a real part of making a psychological shift in the communities you belong to.'

Women's Health has reached out to Unilever for a response and had yet to hear back at the time of publishing. This article will be updated when one comes in.

Reference:  Ayesha Muttucumaru : 9 hrs ago


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Contact dermatitis refers to a form of skin inflammation related to eczema that is caused by external substances coming into contact with the skin. It is reported to affect 5-9 per cent of men and 13-15 percent of women.
When substances directly act on the skin causing irritation and inflammation it is known as irritant contact dermatitis, which is the most common type.

Irritant contact dermatitis is particularly common among hairdressers, due to the surfactants, fragrances and colours used in shampoos and conditioners. Where an immune hyper-sensitivity reaction takes place (i.e the immune system provokes a skin reaction), it is referred to as allergic contact dermatitis.

Contact urticaria is an instant reaction to a substance that causes severely itchy welts (swelling on the skin surrounded by redness). This can be either an irritant or an allergic reaction and it is believed that the irritant form can promote the onset of the allergic form.

Irritant contact dermatitis commonly causes itching, swelling, oozing, dryness and crusting. Allergic contact dermatitis normally only takes place in the area of the skin that is exposed to te allergen and occurs as a result of repeated exposure to a substance, which instigates an immune system reaction that causes the skin to become inflamed.

The reaction may not take place until one or two days after exposure. Fragrances and preservatives such as formaldehyde are known to causes of irritant contact dermatitis. It usually subsides once the offending products are no longer used. There are different types of reaction within the two broad definitions of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis. I have provided.

looking at irritant contact dermatitis, for example, subjective irritancy refers to stinging and burning, responses that take place within a short space of time (usually minutes) and is often precipitated by cosmetics or chemical s used in sunscreens. Acute irritant contact dermatitis is frequently initiated by extreme exposure to corrosive and highly concentrated substances, such as occupational work chemicals.

Chronic cumulative irritancy usually occurs through repeated exposure to milder cleansing irritancy usually occurs through repeated exposure to milder cleansing irritants such as detergents, soaps and skin cleansers (wet agents).

Research carried out between 1977 and 1983, found that skin and hair care products and facial make-up were responsible for the majority of cosmetic dermatitis reactions in participants studied. The most common allergic sensitizers in the correct order were: fragrance, the preservatives quaternium -15, formaldehyde, imidazolidinyl urea and parabens, plus p-phenylenediamine and glyceryl monothioglycolate."

Reference: Toxic Beauty : Dawn Fellowship

Chemical Nasty : Sodium lauryl sulphate - Toxic Beauty

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Chemical Nasty : Sodium lauryl sulphate - Toxic Beauty

Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is reported to be the most frequent cause of irritation by commercial shampoos. It is used in a range of personal care and household products as a cleaning agent and is also used as an industrial degreasant and floor cleaner. Sodium lauryl sulphate can damage the protective outer layer of the skin (stratum corneum) and is 'known to penetrate the skin and cause cutaneous irritation'.

Researchers at the Department of Dermatology, School of Medicine, University of California, found that sodium lauryl sulphate penetrated the skin directly to a depth of (5-6 mm a quarter of an inch) and deeper transference occurred via systemic redistribution (redistribution throughout the bodily systems).

It was suggested that underlying tissue, including the dermis, subcutaneous layers and muscle 'may be exposed to high levels of SLS'. Seven days after a single application of SLS to a hairless rat ,traces of the agent were identified in tissues.

Sodium lauryl sulphate and other surfactants (short for surface active agent) are commonly used in laboratory testing on humans and animals to induce skin irritation as a point of reference to measure the healing or modifying properties of other substances. As the Handbook of Detergents notes, 'surfactants may allow other toxicants to penetrate the skin'.

One study showed that 4 per cent SLS applied to the skin increased its permeability, with exposure to SLS at a concentration as low as 0.25 per cent for two hours enabling nickel to penetrate the skin. Repeated exposure to SLS can cause contact dermatitis in some individuals.

Toothpastes often contain SLS, even though it has been reported to irritate the mucous membranes in the mouth,' especially in individuals predisposed to recurrent mouth ulcers'.
When SLS undergoes ethoxylation to form the less abrasive detergent sodium laureth sulphate, the probable carcinogen 1,4-dioxane can be formed.

Sodium laureth sulphate is milder than sodium lauryl sulphate but can still cause skin irritation, especially in those who have pre-existing skin conditions.

Reference: Toxic Beauty: Dawn Mellowship

A Hair - Raising Experience: Toxic Beauty

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A Hair - Raising Experience: Toxic Beauty

Numerous hair dye ingredients are also potent irritants, allergens and sensitizers, with some consumers reporting hair loss, burning, redness and irritation from hair dye use. Hair dyes sold in the EU containing phenylenediamines, resorcinol and 1-naphtol must carry a cautionary statement 'can cause allergic reaction. Do not use to colour eyelashes or eyebrows.'

In a memorandum published in March 2007 the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) - a scientific advisory body to the European Commission - assessed and ranked the skin-sensitizing potential of 46 hair due substances, and noted that a high proportion were found to be skin sensitizers.

The European Commission has also acknowledged that further epidemiological studies ae needed to examine the extent of skin allergies to hair dyes in the EU population. Aside from the synthetic chemicals briefly outlined here there are a plethora of other substances used in cosmetic products that can potentially cause allergic reactions. The following table names a few of them.


Chemical Ingredient Commonly Found In
 Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)  Moisturizers, cleansers, eye cream, sunscreen, foundations
 Ammonium thioglycolate  Hair relaxer, perm and straightener, depilatories
 Azo dyes  Hair dyes and cosmetics
 Benzalkonium chloride  Eye drops, cleansers, moisturizers, acne treatment, sunscreen, baby lotion, hair   conditioner
 Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone)  Sunscreen and other products with spf (sun protection factor)
 Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)  Lipstick and lip liner, moisturizers, eyeshadow and eye liner, skin lightener, ant-   ageing products, concealer
 Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)  Lipstick, moisturizers, concealer, foundation, anti-ageing products, antiperspirant/deodorant fragrance
 Cetrimonium bromide  Cleansers, conditioner, moisturizers, exfoliants, styling gel, shampoo, hair relaxer,   hairspray, scalp treatment
 Cetrimonium chloride  hair dyes and bleaching products, conditioner, styling gel, shampoo, hair relaxer, hairspray, scalp treatment
 Cinnamates  Sunscreen and other products with spf such as moisturizers and lip balm; lipstick, foundation, styling gel
 Cocamide DEA  Shampoo, body wash, cleansers, dandruff treatment, bubble bath, liquid hand soap, bath oil, hair relaxer, exfoliants, hair dyes and bleaches
 Cocamidopropyl betaine

 Body wash, shampoo, cleansers, hair dyes and bleaching products, bubble bath, exfoliants, liquid hand soap, acne treatment, toothpaste, conditioner


Chemical Ingredient Commonly Found In 

 Colourants (e.g.2,5-   toluenediamine,3,4-toluenediamine,   acid blue 9, acid orange 3,acid yellow   6, FD&C Red 2, FD&C Blue 2,   paraphenylenediamine, resorcinol

 Make-up (lipstick, eyeshadows, face powder etc) and hair dyes
 Coumarin  Acne treatments, deodorants, cleansers, skin fresheners, moisturizers, hand cream, body firming lotion, hair dyes, fragrance, sunscreens, soaps tanning products, shampoo
 Diazolidinyl urea  Moisturizers, cleansers, sunscreen, styling gel conditioner, acne treatment, shampoo, eye cream
 Dihydroxyacetone  Tanning products, sunscreen, moisturizers, bronzer, skin lightener
 Disodium cocoamphodipropionate  Hair dyes, and bleaching products, shampoo, hair relaxer, cleansers, hair conditioner, styling gel, exfoliants, body wash, foundation
 DMDM hydantoin  Shampoo, hair conditioner, body wash, moisturizers, styling gel, cleansers, anti-ageing products, sunscreen
 Formaldehyde  Nail treatments, hair colour and bleaching products
 Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate  Moisturizers, sunscreen, shampoo, cleansers, styling gel, anti-ageing products, body wash, baby wipes
 Lanolin  Lipstick, lip balm, lip gloss, foundation, moisturizers, hair conditioner, styling gel, foundation
 Para-aminobenzonic acid (PABA)  Shampoo, conditioner, hair-loss treatment, body wash, exfoliants, moisturizers, cleansers  some sunscreens
 Parabens  Moisturizers, anti-ageing products, cleansers, lipstick, sunscreen, foundation, eyeshadow, lipgloss
 Phthalates (dibutyl phthalate, benzyl butyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate banned in the EU  Nail polish, nail treatment and cuticle treatment; fragrance
 Polyethylene glycol (PEG) compounds  Numerous skincare products; hair dyes and bleaching products; shampoos and conditioner; make-up
 Propylene glycol  Moisturizers, hair dyes and bleaching products, anti-ageing products, hair conditioner, shampoo, body wash, sunscreen

 Sunscreen, fragrance, hair dyes and bleaches. moisturizers, styling gel, body wash


Mascara and other eye make-up (not commonly used)



Reference: Toxic beauty: Dawn Mellowship

Skin Colour

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Skin Colour

Skin gets its colour from melanin - a brown pigment that is made in the melanocytes found in the lower layers of the epidermis; the natural yellow pigment of the skin cells; and from the colour of blood in tiny blood vessels called capillaries, just below the skin's surface.

our skin colour is inherited from our parents and is determined by a set of genes that control the amount of melanin in our skin. Albinism is a genetic disorder in which melanin production is reduced or absent altogether. Since melanin is also found in hair and eyes, albinos often have light or white skin and hair, and pale or pink eyes. It is a rare condition and affects all races but is most common in the Ibo people of Nigeria.

A melalnocyte looks a little like an octopus, with its head in the basal cell layer and its tentacles reaching up into the epidermis. Under the influence of a hormone called melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH), the melanocytes produce melanin. The tentacles distribute the grains, called melanosomes containing the melanin, into the higher layers of the epidermis.

Inside the melanocytes, melanin is formed when an amino acid called tyrosine, is oxidized. This oxidation is often caused by ultraviolet light or by an enzyme called tyrosinase. The main function of the melanin is to absorb harmful ultraviolet rays before they reach the deeper layers of living skin cells.

Hydroquinone lightens the colour of the skin by reducing melanin production by inhibiting tyrosianse. Some dark-skinned people use it to bleach their skin in order to disguise their racial origins. This practice is not recommended . hydroquinone is now banned from skin-lightening products sold in the EU.

Both dark and light-skinned races seem to contain the same number of melanocytes in their basal layer of skin cells but light-skinned people have an enzyme that breaks down the melanin shorty after it is produced., and so very little melanin reaches the outer layer of skin. Ultraviolet rays stimulate the melanocytes to produce extra melanin, resulting in a suntan.

if you are one of those people who finds it hard to get a tan, you have an efficient enzyme system that breaks down the melanin as rapidly as it is formed.

Melancoyte-stimulating hormone is produced in the pituitary gland. Changes in the level of this hormone, possibly as a result of injury, illness, or the use of some drugs, can cause changes in the colour of the skin.

Hence we hear horror stories of the dark-skinned individuals who have become pale, and have little natural protection from the sun, or white people who become dark skinned.

Blood vessels close to the surface of the skin can give it a red or blue tint. if we are hot or flushed, the blood vessels become larger and a greater volume of blood flows to the skin, giving it a pink or red hue. On cold days the blood vessels become narrower, slowing down the blood flow. The blood loses its oxygen and picks up carbon dioxide.

This deoxygenated blood has a blue or purple colour and is not carried away quickly, so our skin may acquire a blue tint. These colour changes are more noticeable in light -skinned people.

A number of harmless skin disorders may cause dark or light patches to form on the skin. These can be disguised with make-up, but if the condition worsens, or you have any other symptoms such as reddening or irritation, you should consult your doctor.

Reference: Cosmetics Unmasked: Dr Stephen & Gina Antczak



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