Skin Lightening: Inside the Dangerous World of India’s Cosmetic Industry


It’s an industry growing at twice the rate of India’s economy. The brands involved are household names with global footprints and multi-million dollar advertising budgets.

If you’re an Indian woman the chances are you’ll see or read an advert every single dcay extolling the virtues of products that guarantee a better you. And India’s women are falling prey to an age-old prejudice – and putting their health at risk – in the fight to be fairer skinned.

“I was fairer among the girls in my family and I did not realize,” said medical student Ayushi, who initially enjoyed the pampering but is now disgusted that her family decided to love her more because of her skin tone.

“There was always an unsaid difference in behavior when guests used to meet me and my sister, who is more qualified than I am, but is dark skinned. I, by default, was the favorite sister, niece and daughter. Thinking about the reason, I feel suffocated,” she added.

Statistics show that Indians spend huge amounts of money on fairness products, with the industry growing at a staggering rate of 15-20% each year, compared with the growth rate of India’s economy overall which is currently 7.4%.


With over 40 brands taking on the responsibility to make ‘India look beautiful’, advertisements promoting fair skin sell the idea that to be successful, one needs fair skin. Taglines like, “Because you’re worth it” and “BEAUTY—it’s yours. No matter WHAT” convey the message that nothing is more important than being pretty in India.

But are Indian women dying to be fair? Samples tested show alarmingly high levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals in lipsticks, lightening creams and treatments.

Prachi Shringi, an engineering student from Jaipur, spends 5,000 rupees on beauty products and parlor sessions every month. “It adds to my confidence when everybody appreciates me for flawless skin. The ‘beauty bill’ increases on occasions like parties and marriages.”

The ingredients in the major lightening cosmetics that are now flooding the Indian market have been found to have life threatening ingredients. But when the market meets the taboo of dark skin that is so engraved in the Indian society, it seems the warnings are going unheeded.

The Centre of Science and the Environment’s (CSE) recent report analyzed 32 lightening creams taken from markets of Delhi. The results were shocking, with mercury content present that was far beyond limits set by the authorities. The CSE report also highlighted the effects of prolonged usage of mercury. Apart from diseases like nephritic syndrome, mercury can also be transferred during pregnancy. The readily absorption of mercury via inhalation only  adds to the danger.

Mercury was detected in about 44% (14 of 32) of the samples, with a range of between 0.10 ppm and 1.97 ppm of mercury, thus violating the Drugs and Cosmetic Act which prohibits mercury content in lightening creams.

Aroma Magic Fair Lotion had the highest mercury concentration of 1.97 ppm, closely followed by Olay Natural White and Ponds White Beauty with 1.79 ppm and 1.36 ppm respectively. Out of six fairness creams for men, mercury was detected in only one sample, Garnier Men Power Light at a level of 0.24 ppm as total mercury.

The bleaching agent present in most of the creams is called Hydroquinlo. According to Anamika Gangwar, a research scholar at DRDO in Delhi, “bleaching creams are not a problem as long as they are used in small amounts. What is the problem is, most creams do not mention the percentage and customers are unaware and must then bear the consequences.

Major problems arise with creams promising immediate results. The mercury helps the processes hit the nervous system quickly. These kinds of creams also use steroids which affect natural steroids in our bodies, resulting in further darkening of the skin.”

But the taboo and shame of having dark skin is fought more successfully by some women than others. Kritika Shekhwat, a political aspirant, has learnt to ignore the conventional ideas of looking fair in the society. “Beauty has nothing to do with being fair skin. We grow up associating beauty and sophistication with being fair. I feel sorry for people who cannot come out of that old backward mentality,” she said.

“During the first year of my college, my teacher preferred fair skinned girls to invite to functions.  Only fair girls were allowed to stand in the first row of dance event. It was really painful for me but I never acted like I was hurt. I just told them that skin color has nothing to do with beauty and success.”


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Punita Maheshwari

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