A new wave of criticism over skin lightening products—especially popular in Africa, Asia and the Middle East—has led major companies like L’Oreal and Unilever to reassess creams, cleansers and masks that promote whiter skin, though their recent announcements show a hesitancy to quit a controversial market worth billions of dollars.
Reuters reported Friday that L’Oreal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, has decided to remove words referring to “white,” “fair” and “light” from its skin-evening products sold under its Garnier brand.
This comes a day after Unilever, which has sold lightening products through Pond’s and Vaseline, said it would remove the words “fair/fairness, white/whitening, and light/lightening” from product packaging and change the name of its Fair & Lovely brand, a leading skin lightener in India which thousands recently called to end in an online petition.
Johnson & Johnson was the first cosmetics company to respond to mounting pressure to address racism, saying last week that it would stop selling its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines, advertised as dark-spot reducers which double as skin lighteners, following questions from Buzzfeed News about the ethics of these products.
Leading American and European beauty brands have profited heavily for years from selling skin whitening products to consumer classes in countries like India, China, Nigeria, Ghana and Indonesia, inflating an industry accused of perpetuating colorism in the form of a preference for people with lighter skin.
The decisions by L’Oreal and Unilever to rebrand instead of halting the sale of skin-lighting products drew criticism on social media for failing to address the root of the issue.
A Unilever spokesperson told Forbes that because 300 million people buy Fair & Lovely every year, the company was concerned that halting production could cause an influx of unsafe alternatives and noted that “all over the world there are different views of what beauty is”, which Unilever wants to cater to in a “positive and inclusive way.”
L’Oreal and Proctor & Gamble (which sells similar products under its Olay brand) did not immediately respond to Forbes requests for comment about the decision to continue selling the products with reformed packaging and marketing.
$8.3 billion. The value of the skin lightening market as of 2017, according to a report by Grand View Research, though its precise size is difficult to estimate as brands often avoid overtly promoting changes in skin tone.
“None of these companies has said we’re going to discontinue these products, despite the reputational challenge,” said Alex Malouf, a former P&G executive in the Middle East, prior to Johnson & Johnson’s announcement. “It speaks to the size of the market. It’s huge. What’s going to make them reconsider? Possibly shareholder pressure? Possibly public sentiment?
The increased pressure on companies selling skin lightening products comes as other U.S. brands have been pushed to address their use of racial stereotyping or imagery in popular products. Forbes counts at least nine household name brands that have announced significant changes due to the racist origins of their names or packaging, including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Cream Of Wheat, Eskimo Pie and Darlie. Cosmetics companies were next to enter the firing line as critics highlighted the disparity between supportive Black Lives Matter posts and the continued profiteering from products that promote colorism and have been banned in a number of countries.