Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: how manufactured beauty consciousness is threatening the health of women.
People took to the streets and organised socially and politically in many states of America against the Police Brutality on the Afro-American community. By ‘Black Lives Matter’, they are trying to end this systemic racism that allowed the Police to go unchecked, and this movement was supported by many communities worldwide.
Far away in India, finally, after 45 years awaken by this current movement FMCG brand Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has announced that it will remove words such as “fair/fairness “white/whitening”, and “light/lightning” from all its products and communications and its age-old product “Fair and Lovely” will no longer include the word”‘fair”.
The word “Fair” is problematic as it establishes that anyone Fair(white) is superior to Brown/Black. The use of lightening creams and soaps is pervasive across large parts of the globe. Skin lightening has special significance in Asian countries which have a colonial past, like India. Asians are not genetically white like Caucasians; we have a broad range of complexion like white-pink, pale, golden, wheatish (Light brown), dusky, brown, chocolate brown, and black.
But, this cultural bias towards fairer skin could also be related to status in earlier times as peasants, and the working class would have to toil in the hot sun while the elite could afford to stay in the shade by doing white-collar jobs. So, this was a class issue, and the narrow beauty parameters like fairness and certain facial features are traditionally believed to relate with higher class/caste.
To cash into this popular sentiment for fairness, cosmetic companies launched several products rich in Vitamin E and tea tree oils that claim to lighten one’s skin. Skin lightening products occupy 61% of the dermatological market in India, and most cannot afford Loreal or Bobby Brown, and they turn to alternatives. So, to cater to the need/ desire of this big consumer base manufacturers use mercury compounds to prepare cheap fairness cream because it can inhibit the formation of melanin.
Mercury is used in both inorganic and organic forms in cosmetics. Organic mercury compounds such as thiomersal and phenylmercuric salts are the only two mercuric compounds that are allowed to be used as a preservative in eye area cosmetics. This is due to the lack of a safer alternative. Inorganic ammoniated mercuric chloride and iodide are found mostly to be used in skin lightening creams.
Hydroquinone can be used at a certain level of 2-4 ppm (parts per million), not beyond that as the skin can get damaged if any skincare product contains more than that. Still, there is no scope to use mercury for manufacture skincare care products as it is a heavy metal and its use is a violation of the Drug and Cosmetic Act. The mercury-containing products, while being less expensive, are illegal in many countries as even one particle per million (PPM) of the elements can be dangerous to humans.
Though the skin initially appears to lighten without an immediate reaction. In the longer term, mercury often produces unhealthy skin of uneven colour. The regulatory body also warned that mercury, which gets accumulated in the body, can damage the kidneys, brain, and nervous system.
In the EU, the permissible limit is equal to or less than 0.007% by weight. India also applies the same limitation. Norway banned two products of the skin whitening cream in January, Fair and Lovely, saying they contain toxic ingredients that pose serious health hazards. The ban by an EU country raises severe concerns about the regulatory systems in place in India that has the fastest-growing cosmetic industry.
We need to realise that Melanin is giving our skin its shade. The brown to the black pigment found in our skin, hair, and iris of the eye is because of the pigmentation, and the skin pigmentation is the most important photoprotective factor, since melanin, besides functioning as a broadband UV absorbent, has antioxidant and radical scavenging properties.
A paper by UC San Francisco authors, suggests that heavily pigmented skin evolved because it forms a stronger barrier against a host of harsh environmental challenges, they propose, our ancestors shed some of these pigments through natural selection as they moved north and needed less protection against these threats. Besides, many epidemiological studies have shown a lower incidence of skin cancer in individuals with darker skin compared to those with fair skin. Mercury is known to inhibit the production of Melanin in one’s skin, which is the pigment that causes it to appear darker and protect our skin.
I believe just dropping “Fair” from the title is not enough. Instead, we need to change the narrative of beauty in our society. Manufactured beauty and fair skin should not be favoured in any case, and no one should be judged based on complexion. Strict rules and regulations are required to prohibit the use of mercury in skin care products and other products in the large public interest and safe environment.