Emma Watson appears in a 2013 ad for a Lancôme skin-whitening cream. (Photo: Lancôme)
Emma Watson fans are outraged over an ad she did in 2013 for Lancôme’s Blanc Expert Melanolyser, a cream for “helping to prevent dark spots in the skin, associated with age and exposure to the sun.” The product description on Lancôme’s site says that the cream targets dark spots and excess melanin. Tweets attacking the ad denounce Watson, calling her “an advocate for skin lightening” and suggest that “her feminism only extends to white women.”
Lately people are hyperaware of racism perpetuated by the beauty industry, so it’s not surprising that the skirmish surrounding Watson’s ad is surfacing now. A campaign emerged several weeks ago rejecting skin-bleaching products targeting East Asian countries where women lighten their skin to meet Western beauty standards. Likewise, brands are finally beginning to create makeup for deep skin tones, designers are recognizing that there is more than one shade of “nude,” and skin-bleaching products are slowly being banned across the globe.
Using the hashtag #UnfairAndLovely, women say goodbye to skin bleaching. (Photo: Instagram)
But the work is hardly done, and skin whitening is still an epidemic. According to a Gal Dem article that put eyes on the Watson ad, up to 77 percent of women in Nigeria have admitted to using skin bleach, and last year’s ban on these products in Côte d’Ivoire was a response to the problem getting “out of control.” And what’s the difference between the skin-bleaching products and the brightening products we regularly see in the U.S.? There may be no difference at all. “In the USA, the terms ‘lightening’ and ‘whitening’ are drug claims that must contain hydroquinone as the active ingredient. The FDA recognizes terms like ‘brightening’ or ‘evening of skin tone’ as cosmetic claims,” beauty chemist Ni’Kita Wilson tells Yahoo Beauty. “In reality, the same ingredients are used in all of the products to brighten, lighten, and whiten either dark spots or the entire face because they all have to do with interfering with melanin creation in one way or another.”
The product endorsed in Watson’s ad is applied all over the face and neck, so it will therefore lighten the entire face as well as the dark spots. But if its most effective function is to lighten age spots and sunspots, is this product really so bad? “The truth of the matter is that these products are great to use to even the skin tone and reduce the unwanted dark spots or freckles brought on by trauma to the skin and UV exposure,” says Wilson.
The real issue is with the deep-rooted racism in the beauty industry pressuring women of color to whiten their skin.
Other celebs have endorsed skin-whitening products and managed to get away without a fiasco like this one, probably because these products are marketed as brightening in Western countries, and whitening or lightening in Eastern ones. Since these whitening creams aren’t available to those of us who think they’re absurd, we tend not to notice when other celebs do just what Emma Watson did. The difference is that Watson’s ad was for a product called Blanc Expert — or “Expert White” — and could be found in Europe and the U.S. without some kind of pseudonym like “brightening” or “evening of skin tone” to veil its bleaching properties.
L’Oréal’s White Perfect collection is not available in Europe or the U.S. but can be found on the L’Oréal India website. And aren’t all of L’Oréal’s international spokeswomen like Blake Lively, Jennifer Lopez, Karlie Kloss, Eva Longoria, Susan Sarandon, and Zoe Saldana promoting this range of products? Likewise, Cate Blanchett is the face of SK-II, a leading skin care brand across the world that distributes a popular whitening cream in Asia. Blanchett even told Elle that she uses these products herself to minimize her freckles from Australian sun, with no resulting upset among her fan base.
Cate Blanchett appears in an SK-II campaign. (Photo: SK-II)
So was Watson just unlucky that this particular product was called Blanc Expert? Maybe so, but she probably should have given this ad more critical consideration before agreeing to appear in it. And while they’re not completely to blame, she and the other celebs who have made the same mistake are perpetuating a deep-rooted issue by appearing in skin-whitening ads.
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