Notes & Essays

It’s Finally Time to Toss Out Your Skin Whitening Products

It’s a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.
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Back when I worked at the Australian Embassy in Manila, I remember going out with a few officemates one night and ending up at the opening of Martinis at the old Mandarin Hotel in Makati. It was supposed to be a by-invitation-only event, and we weren't invited, but we managed to stroll past the check girl at the door, owing perhaps to the fact that I was with people who were obviously Caucasian. It was only when I was swigging actual martinis inside the bar did I realize I’d have probably never gotten in there if it was just me and my obviously Filipino features. 

I’ve read about the idea of white privilege before, but that was perhaps the first time I experienced it in the real world. Today, race relations is a hot topic, and it took the death of people like George Floyd for it to become so. The Black Lives Matter movement has had a ripple effect on nearly every country on earth, and on aspects of everyday life as varied as entertainment, sports, social media, the economy, and fashion and beauty.

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I don’t recall ever wanting to become lighter-skinned, despite its supposed benefits to one’s social and professional life, but I’m aware of our country’s obsession with skin whitening. We see it in the way we adore and almost venerate fair-skinned celebrities, in how we avoid the sun for fear of becoming a few shades darker, and in the insane popularity of skin whitening products.

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But something has been happening over the last few weeks. As more and more companies are finding it necessary to take a stand against racism, some in the beauty industry have faced increasing criticism for propagating stereotypes and continuing to promote standards that go against the values the BLM movement represents.

For decades, consumer products that purport to lighten the skin have been marketed and sold in places in the world where fairer skin is seen as an ideal, including the Philippines. But the world’s biggest consumer goods companies—also some of the world’s biggest advertisers that produce and market these skin whitening products—have begun to be inundated by criticism and online protests attached to colorism, or the term used to describe people’s preference for lighter skin.

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Unilever was one of the first to respond. On June 25, the global consumer goods company announced  it was removing the words “fair/fairness,” “white/whitening,” and “light/lightening” from its products’ packs and communication, in what it is calling “the next step in the evolution of its skin care portfolio to a more inclusive vision of beauty.” It also said it is changing the name of its Fair & Lovely brand of skincare products, which is popular in India. 

The company also said it has removed “before-and-after” impressions in its advertising, choosing instead to highlight “glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance.”

Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, announced that it is discontinuing its lineup of skin lightening products, including the Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines. Products in both lines are sold in India, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

“Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our dark spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” Johnson & Johnson told Reuters. “This was never our intention—healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

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On Saturday, June 27, L’Oreal followed Unilever’s lead and announced it was dropping the words “white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening from all its skin evening products.”

It’s certainly a start, but as anyone who is familiar with the culture of skin whitening here in the country, there’s a lot more that needs to be done.

Wanting fairer skin is an obsession that has been ingrained in us by colonial powers, as far back as the time of the Spanish occupation. Even now, despite a pushback from so-called “woke” social media in recent years, skin whitening is still a multi-billion dollar industry. A cursory Google search for skin whitening in the Philippines will reveal thousands of products marketed locally to lighten the naturally brown or “kayumanggi” skin of most Filipinos.

Yes, an argument can be made that people can do to their skin what they wish—that if they want to lighten their complexion, it’s their choice to do so. Live and let live, so they say.

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But if one insists on satisfying this desire “be whiter,” one needs to understand where this comes from, and how toxic it is to insist on changing our appearance to fit some need to belong or be accepted by other people.

Besides bringing attention to systemic racism in the US, the BLM movement has succeeded in people questioning and completely upending our ideas of beauty. When multinational corporations take notice and actually do something about it, it’s an acknowledgment of something that’s wrong with the system and an attempt to fix deeply held but ultimately flawed beliefs. 

Self-improvement isn’t wrong per se, but there is something off about “correcting” something that isn’t wrong to begin with.

It’s probably going to take more for us to get comfortable in our own skin, so to speak, but tossing out skin whitening creams and lotions and learning to appreciate what we have and who we are is an important first step in letting go of archaic notions of what is ideal and attractive. Eventually, we can get to a point where we won’t need to hide behind white folks to gatecrash a party.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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