The Skin-Lightening Industry Is Facing A Long Overdue Reckoning

Thatiana Diaz

Before winning the title of Miss America in 2014, Nina Davuluri had grappled with years of internalized colorism. On trips home to India for the summer, she remembers seeing advertisements for skin-lightening products on television and billboards, and she watched as critics heaped praise on Bollywood actresses with lighter complexions. She was just five years old when her family members told her not to spend too much time under the sun while learning to ride a bike or she’d get “too dark.”

Davuluri’s experience with colorism wasn’t limited to her time in India. Before meeting her college boyfriend’s Indian parents in Ohio, she asked him if he thought they would approve of her. Davuluri was devastated when her ex-boyfriend implied his mom might consider her “too dark.”

Not long after that experience, Davuluri reached a tipping point. After spending two years in training, she became the first woman of Indian descent to win Miss America. But instead of her family country rooting her on, she remembers reading articles that dissected her complexion. That’s when she decided to take the opportunity as a public figure to speak out against the deep-rooted discrimination that she had faced for far too long. “I had the opportunity to really change what that conversation looks like,” Davuluri tells Refinery29.

The beauty queen-turned-activist focused her efforts on dismantling the skin-lightening industry, a rapidly growing market that’s estimated to reach a valuation of $24 billion in the next decade. Skin lightening, also referred to as bleaching and whitening, reduces the amount of melanin or pigment in the skin through lasers, peels, creams, soaps, injectables, pills, and more. In recent years, countries have experienced dangerous skin-bleaching epidemics, with rates of use as high as 77% among women in Nigeria.

Along with launching a docuseries called #COMPLEXion that unpacks these issues in detail, Davuluri recently started a petition calling to end the production of skin-whitening products and the toxic messaging behind them. Davuluri’s campaign garnered over 3,400 signatures in three weeks, and more petitions have emerged since then — including one that has collected more than 13,000 signatures.

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – SEPTEMBER 16: Miss America Nina Davuluri addresses media during the 2014 Miss America Competition Winner Press Conference at Boardwalk Hall Arena on September 16, 2013 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – SEPTEMBER 16: Miss America Nina Davuluri addresses media during the 2014 Miss America Competition Winner Press Conference at Boardwalk Hall Arena on September 16, 2013 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for changes to occur. This week, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing two lines of skin-lightening products — Neutrogena Fine Fairness, which is only sold in Asia and the Middle East, and Clean & Clear Fairness, which is only sold in India.

Johnson & Johnson claims that the brand had already planned to discontinue Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness products and replace them with a Bright Boost line that focuses on even skin tone versus lightening. But the heightened conversations amid the Black Lives Matter protests made the change more urgent. “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. This was never our intention — healthy skin is beautiful skin,” Kim Montagnino, Senior Director of Global Corporate Media Relations at Johnson & Johnson, tells Refinery29.

While the company stresses that these lines represented fewer than 1% of Johnson & Johnson’s global beauty sales in 2019, this move was pivotal and long-awaited. “To see this happen, it feels a little surreal,” says Davuluri. Now, consumers are calling on more global companies, including Unilever, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble, to follow suit. One of the most recognized lines on the market is Fair & Lovely, which sells in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. According to Euromonitor, and as reported by the Wall Street Journal, this line holds a 27% share of the skin-care category in India, which makes it the largest personal-care brand in the country.

While Davuluri understands the financial impact of these decisions, she hopes brands will shift resources to make a difference. “I’m asking these companies to spend the billions of dollars from the revenue of these products and put the research into creating products that are inclusive for all skin tones and are socially impactful,” she says. “It’s not about shutting down a company. It’s about using their resources.”

Inspired by Johnson & Johnson’s decision, Davuluri and other activists who have launched petitionsincluding Marvi Ahmed, Anum Chandani, Hira Hashmi, Tejasvini Mantripragada, Shobia Ooruthirapathy, and Aritha Wickramasinghe — came together to send an open letter to Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever. “We implore you to take ownership as a company and recognize the social responsibility that you have to your consumers, particularly those without access to education & the opportunity to raise their voices,” they wrote in a letter, which was shared with Refinery29.

“Unless companies and media take an active approach to dismantle the very core beliefs that they themselves have built, we can’t break the cycle.”

nina Davuluri

Davuluri remained hopeful that Unilever would make a move — and they did. On June 25, Unilever announced that it was going to rename the Fair & Lovely brand in India. “We are making our skin care portfolio more inclusive and want to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty,” Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Unilever, said in a press statement. This decision follows the company’s removal of before-and-after images, which were intended to show the product results, on the packaging in 2019. The corporation also says it will be shifting its marketing efforts “to feature women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty across India.”

Unilever did not state any plans of halting production of the line, and it stands by its claim that the Fair & Lovely products have “multiple skin health benefits” and are not intended to bleach skin. “The brand has never been and is not a bleaching product,” read the statement.

Skin-lightening products, which often contain hydroquinone or mercury, remain largely unregulated and researchers are still determining the full extent of the risks for people who use them. The World Health Organization has warned against these products, and they are currently banned in the European Union and in countries like Ghana, Japan, and Australia. “We currently do not have enough studies that establish either the safety or effectiveness for any treatments for generalized skin lightening for the entire body,” Annie Chiu, MD, board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist in Los Angeles, previously told Refinery29.

Earlier this year, the European Union announced that Fair & Lovely creams in particular were banned in Norway for containing mercury and hydroquinone. Hindustan Unilever denied these claims to an India-based publication, adding that the products examined could be counterfeit since the brand’s formulas do not contain those specific ingredients.


While Unilever’s decision is a sign of progress, Davuluri stresses that this is only the start and that all eyes are on large corporations now. “This is a win, but it’s only the beginning,” she tells us. “How Unilever executes their rebranding strategy and new advertisement campaigns will be incredibly telling of their intentions.” Given these recent changes, the activist also hopes to see a shift in Bollywood, which continues to peddle harmful messaging through casting and the endorsement of skin-whitening products by actors. 

Ultimately, the fight is far from done. Davuluri urges people to sign petitions, vote with their dollars, and to call on all markets to end campaigns that promote the idea that lighter skin is better. “This is one piece of a much larger fight to end colorism,” she says. “Unless companies and media take an active approach to dismantle the very core beliefs that they themselves have built, we can’t break the cycle.”

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

More From

  • R29 Readers’ Top Stay-At-Home Picks Are All On Sale For July 4th

    After spending many, many months indoors recently, it's very possible that you already know your way around a good cyber sale. But just when you thought you'd be swapping screen time for sunshine in honor of one star-spangled holiday this weekend, let us remind you that the 4th of July is also a major moment for some of the year's biggest markdowns on everything furniture, decor, rugs, and more. And while we're on the topic of that stay-at-home life we've grown accustomed to as of late, we'd like to point out that many of our R29 readers' favorite finds over lockdown (fire pits, desk chairs, and breathable bedding, to name a few) are having their prices slashed, all in the name of patriotism as July 4 draws near. So we're breaking down the top holiday deals by category featuring the season's most-loved home items so you're well-prepared to ride the wave of promotions that's on its way. With discounts of up to 70% off from popular retailers like Wayfair and Lulu and Georgia, it'll be worth the extra few minutes at your computer. The more efficient your sale shopping, the more time you've got to soak up that all-too-precious vitamin D, so click through our roundup of unmissable steals ahead and keep checking back — we'll be updating this list as long as the markdowns are marching in. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?All The Home Sales You May As Well Shop While WFHUpgrade Your Bedroom Decor With This Design HackWayfair's July 4th Sale Is Up To 70% Off

  • It’s Hot. Here’s How To Make Your Face Mask More Comfortable

    I’m going to kick this off with two statements that are likely beyond obvious to you (unless you’ve spent the first half of 2020 living off the land in the desolate wilderness with nothing but a penknife and a ball of cord to keep you company, à la My Side of The Mountain). You should be wearing a mask. And it’s freaking hot outside. What do these two things have to do with other? Well, wearing a mask in the heat is a pain. Masks can get sweaty, feel stuffy, and can even leave us with a heat rash.“It’s worth acknowledging that masks are uncomfortable, especially when it’s hot and humid,” says Nate Favini, MD, medical lead at Forward, a concierge medical service. “They’re annoying, and I don’t think we should pretend that’s not true. I’m empathetic — but it doesn’t mean that wearing a mask isn’t crucial.” Because the fact is, face masks work. They reduce transmission, helping to curb the spread of coronavirus and to quite literally save lives. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an increasing number of cases, so it’s more important than ever to wear a mask,” says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical’s regional medical director. “Until we have a vaccine, widespread masks are our best defense against this virus.”But when it’s hot and sticky outside, and the humid air you’re exhaling is getting trapped by your mask, things might get a little stifling, admits Dr. Bhuyan. (To be clear: While there’s a myth circulating that wearing a mask can lower oxygen levels, it’s not true. Doctors and nurses wear them all day long, and they’re doing okay. “Even though we are exhaling carbon dioxide, it already exists in the environment… Wearing the mask does not increase this risk,” Dr. Bhuyan says.)So, yes, wearing a face mask on a 100-degree day is still worth it. And to make it easier on you, we asked doctors for their best tips for staying comfortable while doing your civic duty and covering your face in steamy temps. Get a more breathable mask. Choose one that has more structure than those that lie flat against your mouth. But Dr. Favini cautions that the more breathable a mask is, the less protection it may offer to the people around you. “There’s the tension of wanting people to have masks that are more comfortable versus wanting them to have ones that are more effective.” So if you’re going to be indoors and/or around others, wear a more effective mask, even if it makes you feel hotter. (Or layer up. Which brings us to…)Choose the right material. This is especially important if you’re getting heat rashes from your mask. “Consider fabrics that are either natural, like cotton, or synthetic fabrics that wick away sweat, such as fabric found in exercise clothing,” says Ted Lain, MD, dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology. “The latest recommendation is to use multiple layers of fabric to produce the most effective protective barrier to the virus, so instead of using a thick cotton, consider a thinner cotton fabric but layering it.”Bring backups. A sweaty mask stinks — literally and figuratively. So have a few fresh ones in your bag. That way if you sweat through one, you’ll have another at the ready. This can make you more comfortable, and prevent breakouts. “Sweating and the humidity in the mask area certainly can lead to a dermatitis, or even an acne breakout,” says Dr. Lain. Pack each extra in a clean, sealable plastic baggie so it won’t be exposed to any germs before you slip it on your face.Time your “chin strap” moments. Sure, if you’re totally alone, then it’s fine to pull your mask down and take a few deep breaths. But then pull it back up, Dr. Favini says: “Wearing your mask down around your chin is like having a condom and leaving it on the nightstand while you have sex.” Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

  • The Penumbral Eclipse Will Look Subtle — But Its Effects Are Major

    This weekend, we’ll be experiencing a lunar eclipse; specifically, a penumbral lunar eclipse. We’ve already talked a little bit about what that means for you astrologically, but… what exactly is the event, astronomically speaking? A regular ol’ lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth blocks the sun’s light as it reflects off the moon. This can only happen during a full moon, and there are three kinds of lunar eclipses: total, partial, and penumbral.A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth completely blocks the sun’s light from the moon. During a partial lunar eclipse, the Earth partially blocks the sun from the moon. A penumbral lunar eclipse is a little more subtle. “During a penumbral lunar eclipse, the sun, Earth, and the moon are imperfectly aligned in a row,” astrologer Lisa Stardust tells Refinery29. “The Earth blocks some of the sun’s light from directly reaching the moon’s surface, and covers all or part of the moon with the outer part of its shadow, also known as the penumbra.” What this looks like: You might notice a faint shadow cast over part of the moon’s surface. Like we said — subtle. Lunar eclipses are cool astronomical events, full stop. But the reason they get so many attention in the astrology world is because they involve the two luminaries that affect our lives the most — the sun and the moon, Narayana Montúfar, senior astrologer for and, tells Refinery29. “Eclipses are turbo-charged lunations and the way the Universe creates change in our lives,” she says.Similar to a full moon, a penumbral lunar eclipse brings along endings — sometimes in a way that makes them feel almost like destiny, Montúfar says. “What’s tricky about these eclipses is that those endings will not happen immediately, as they develop over the course of the next six months,” she explains. “And when they end something, they also begin something new, too.” Think of a penumbral lunar eclipse as the celestial version of the famous saying, “When one door closes, another one opens.”Eclipses affect us individually, bringing positive or negative events, depending on what the particular eclipse does in our personal chart, according to Leslie Hale, psychic astrologer at “Sometimes an eclipse is dramatic, or reveals important information if it aspects a significant point in your own chart,” she says. “An eclipse often brings news pertaining to life’s biggest events, and our most significant life happenings often occur close to an eclipse.”Eclipses are often described as wild cards. Montúfar says that the best way to handle their arrival is to be aware that anything’s possible, and to focus on going with the flow, since many of the changes they bring to our lives are non-negotiable. “It’s not rare to feel very emotional during the days surrounding a lunar eclipse, since the energy of the moon is at its highest,” Montúfar notes. During the days leading up to a penumbral lunar eclipse, simplify your schedules. Figure out where your energy and attention is most needed, and let go of anything holding you back. Also, give yourself a lot of time to rest and relax.Ultimately, penumbral eclipses can bring along much-needed change, or shine light on new and exciting opportunities. Pay attention, and take the time during this kind of eclipse to put you and your needs first.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?This Mercury Retrograde, Prepare To Fight

  • This Is Why R29’s Unbothered Is Collaborating With Target

    Dear Unbothered family, Right now, we’re watching as the world makes a major — and much-needed — shift. We’re seeing the kind of reckoning many of us have only read about in history books or heard from our grandparents. But it’s happening. Right before our eyes. And at this very moment, we are members of the movement. But we didn’t just join the movement yesterday. We’ve been here, and we’ve been doing this work. And our content is an imperative reflection of the tireless effort Black women put in every day — at work, at home and on the front lines of social justice. Months ago, the Unbothered team set out to launch a campaign that would celebrate Black life and our relationship with all things summer: barbecues, beaches, bathing suits, and more! We hoped to examine the history and the myths associated with Blackness and our relationship with the water, from shutting down the notion that Black women don’t swim, to finally putting the thought that Black people don’t need sunscreen to rest, to celebrating the communities where many Black folks travel in fellowship and revel in the joys of summer together. But when we realized the devastating effect COVID-19 was having on our communities, we knew we had to serve our audience in a different way. So we shifted. And when the social demonstrations in response to the horrific murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and so many more started — we knew there was different work to do. That is how​ Keep That Same Energy ​was born. This campaign came to life as we navigated the ongoing challenges and changes we so often sustain as Black people. As content creators, we know that our art is a reflection of our lives. And it is our responsibility to bring our audience content that is both relevant and riveting. With that said, we are proud to bring you a platform to celebrate the positive momentum of change by sharing the stories of Black women who are reclaiming joy, defying stereotypes, and proving that summer 2020 definitely isn’t canceled. We are celebrating our Black existence and joy as an act of resistance, and we are doing it in proud partnership with Target. We don’t just work with anybody. We think about who we’re working with and why. This is especially true right now, but it always has been. We take our platform and our responsibility seriously, and we know it is our jobs to challenge brands to support and celebrate Black women genuinely. I am personally proud to work with a company like Target that has not only supported an unprecedented number of Black-owned brands and Black business owners in their stores, but that has also been a consistent partner to the Unbothered team as this program has evolved. As a brand of Black women working tirelessly to change our own company culture, we stand proudly with the Black employees at Target working to do the same at theirs. Together, Unbothered and Target want to send the strong and necessary message that the most impactful way to serve our community and ourselves during this integral time is to “keep that same energy.” So that is what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep celebrating our skin and our unique gifts, we’re going to keep pushing for our joy and our freedom, we’re going to keep experiencing the beauty of summer the way Black people always have. And we’d like for you to come along for the ride with us. Trust me, it’s worth it. Stay safe. Stay sane. Stay Unbothered. Danielle Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?