When was the last time you heard about a fairness enhancing product, or saw it’s advertisement on television or a website? Quite likely in the past hour and certainly many times through the day. We live in the times where all of us are being constantly bombarded with such advertisements. Plenty of fairness cream manufacturing companies feeds on the obsession of looking fair.
We live in times where all of us are being constantly bombarded with such advertisements, some examples are:
- Garnier Natural White Complete Multi Action Fairness Cream
- Lakme perfect radiance intense whitening Day Crème
- L’Oreal Paris Skin Perfect Anti-imperfections and Whitening Cream
- Biotique Bio Coconut Whitening & Brightening Cream
- Fair & Lovely Multivitamin fairness cream with SPF 15
- Revlon Touch & Glow Advanced Fairness Cream
- Lotus Herbals Whiteglow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Cream
And the list goes on. The whitening products market is estimated to be worth $450 Million USD of which Hindustan Lever’s product “Fair and Lovely” claims to have more than a fifty percent share.
Not to leave the men behind, a plethora of fairness creams and fairness enhancing products have been launched for males, as well, such as:
- Emami Fair and Handsome.
- Vaseline Men Anti-spot Whitening Moisturiser.
- Garnier Men PowerLight Sweat+Oil Control Moisturiser.
- L’Oreal Men Expert White Activ.
That “fair” is indeed lovely has been deeply ingrained in our subconscious. It is quite evident from how “fair” as ‘being right’, is linked with “fair” as in ‘complexion’. The antonyms quite obviously related “unfair” and “dark.” Voila!
The desire to look fair is pervasive and downright racist at times. The matrimony ads are explicit about wanting a fair bride or groom. In the southern parts of India, even the most respected and revered politicians don’t mind a dash of Photoshop to make them look brighter and fair.
One well-known celebrity, Padma Lakshmi writes in her book, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” about feeling insecure and conscious about her skin color.
“To many Americans, my skin color signaled third-world slums as seen in Indiana Jones movies, malaria, hot curry and “stinky” food, and strange bright clothing— a caricature of India and Indians. I began to change into a person who contained two people within herself: a girl proud of and connected to her culture and native country, and one who wished she just looked like her old doll, Helen.
Her family advised her to avoid the sun out of fear that her skin would ‘darken to the shade of an Untouchable, a person from the lowest caste in Indian society, someone who toils in the fields. She was called ‘Blackie’ in high school and ‘Black Giraffe.”18
The Start of the Fairness Obsession
It is a myth that the desire to look ‘fair’ originated among Indians during our colonial past. It’s difficult to say when and how, but the arrival of Aryans probably initialized the craze!
The prejudice is evident all over mythology, not to mention great epics, wherein all heroes, Gods, and Goddesses (barring a few) are depicted fair whereas, demons are invariably dark.
It’s harsh to blame youngsters if they inherit this trend since the desire and appreciation for fairness are instilled upon us, since ages. Even the dolls we played with as kids were fair, aren’t they?
It is a deeply ingrained thought that fair people are good-looking by default which makes them more sought after, hence more successful, and subsequently respected in society.
Most of us may also recollect, faintly, though, from memory, a nursery rhyme which said ‘rosy cheeks’ and ‘blue eyes’ were ‘teachers’ pets.’
Indians are endowed with a variety of skin color owing to their diversity. It has been found that these variations occurred due to adaptation to their geographic location. The primary cause of human skin color is melanin, which is a pigment produced in cells of the skin. Melanin regulates the intensity of ultraviolet (UV) rays entering the skin. Hence it acts as a natural sunscreen and protects us from excessive UV rays, which can cause skin cancer.1
Additionally, melanin also preserves folate (derived from folic acid) supply of our body; which is essential for women during their reproductive years. Research has found that global women population generally has 3-4 percent less melanin in their skin as compared to men.
This variation is said to have occurred due to an evolutionary change, as women require more vitamin-D and folate for being healthy and to reproduce.
While it is not possible to go deeper into the evolutionary and anthropological basis for when and why the fairness may have crept into our conscience as being better and superior, it is certainly possible to overcome and avoid the pitfalls of obsessing about becoming fair.
Crazy Things People Do To Become Fair
Here are some of the crazy unexplainable things people do to either remain fair or become fair.
- Avoid sun exposure completely from head to toe
- Religiously apply copious amounts of skin whitening fairness creams
- Bleach their skin often using harmful chemicals
- Apply sunscreen products even for short durations of sun exposure
- Marry fair skinned partner to improve family fairness index in future
How Fairness Obsessions Harms
It is debatable whether such obsession is required to enhance fairness, but it is certain that there are quite a few harmful impacts of using fairness creams and other skin whitening products, apart from the wasted money.
Vitamin D Deficiency
As mentioned earlier, it is common for many people to assume that exposure to the sun even for short durations will lead to the darkening of the skin. The modern lifestyle and city dwelling already severely limits the opportunities for any sun exposure. To make matters worse, it is common for people to completely avoid the sun through clothing that covers one from head to toe, or by applying sunscreens even for a short duration of exposure. It is also a disturbing trend that many parents do not allow their children to play freely in the Sun, even on an occasional basis.
As the exposure to the sun is a natural way for the body to synthesize Vitamin D, this can quickly lead to its deficiency.
Vitamin-D exists as vitamin-D2 and vitamin-D3; vitamin-D3 is produced in our body when bare skin is exposed to the sun. Indians are naturally prone to vitamin-D deficiency, as dark skin (having more melanin pigment) prevents the natural formation of the Vitamin.
A certain amount of sun exposure (shortwave UV radiation) is necessary for the production of vitamin-D. Skin produces about 90 percent of the essential vitamin-D; remaining 10 percent is derived from food supplements, such as fish fats, red meat, and egg yolk. Furthermore, vitamin-D also acts as a hormone helping in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the diet. Hence it helps in bone growth and repair.
Researchers have found that children with early childhood dental caries have significantly low vitamin-D levels.2 Some may also be prone to infections and weak chest muscles causing difficulty in breathing.
In children, it can cause soft skull and leg bones, bone pain, muscle pain and muscle weakness. Most of these children have poor growth in height, reluctance to walk, late teething, and irritability.
Severe deficiency can cause rickets in children, in which low calcium levels in the blood leads to cramps and seizures. Rarely these children may also have weakness in heart muscles or cardiomyopathy.
In infants, vitamin-D deficiency reduces absorption of calcium from diet causing muscle cramps, seizures, and breathing difficulty.
In adults, vitamin-D deficiency causes tiredness and generalized aches. Severe deficiency can cause osteomalacia which presents as, difficulty to climb stairs, painful bones on moderate pressure, and hairline bone fractures in shin bones and rib cage. It may also lead to osteoporosis, and reduced production of sperm cells.
- In women in their reproductive years, vitamin-D deficiency can be most harmful. It can cause the following:
- Neural tube defects in newborns
- Prolonged deficiency can cause pelvic deformities in girls, causing difficulty in normal delivery of babies.
- In 2004, a study showed that there was a high prevalence of vitamin-D deficiency among pregnant women and their newborns. It was found that 84.4 percent urban women and 83.6 percent rural women had vitamin-D below optimum levels.3
- A recently published study in 2015, has found that 20 percent of the population above 50 years of age were Indian women with osteoporosis. Poor knowledge of bone health, low calcium intake, and lack of dietary products fortified with vitamin-D were some of the contributing factors to this prevalence.16
- The Indian Journal of Medical Research reported that Indian women of low-income backgrounds with inadequate calcium supplements, calories, protein, and micronutrients in diet had a low bone mineral density as compared to Caucasian women.17
What are the benefits of getting sun exposure?
Apart from helping in the production of vitamin-D, exposure to sun rays has some benefits, like:
- Enhancing mood and energy and stimulating the release of endorphins.
- Suppressing symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
- Treatment of skin diseases likes psoriasis, dermatitis, and scleroderma.
- Promoting wound healing through anti-microbial effect.
- Protecting against melanoma (a lethal form of skin cancer).
- Optimizing the functioning of endocrine glands, hence regulating hormonal balance.
Sun/UV exposure also helps in preventing:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Macular degeneration
How to get enough sun exposure?
Dermatologists suggest that sun exposure for short durations is enough to stay healthy. Our body can produce 1,000 IU of vitamin-D in about 6 to 15 minutes! However, this rate varies with the time of the day and time of the year of sun exposure; your geographic location; the color of your skin; and the amount of bare skin exposed to the sun. Also, paler skin tones are prone to sunburns, while the darker skin is easier to tan. Regular sun exposures are found to be more effective as compared to occasional exposures. It is recommended that you get:
- 5 minute unblocked sun exposure for a week
- Followed by 10 minutes exposure on alternate days, the next week
- To maximize vitamin-D production, up to 20-30 minutes of mid-morning unblocked sun exposure is needed; after which sunscreen should be applied.
- Precautions against excessive sun exposure should be taken to prevent sunburns; especially for people with very light skin tones.5
Studies suggest that prevalence of vitamin-D deficiency in India is 70-98 percent among adults and 80 percent among pregnant women and children.6
The Endocrine Society of India recommends a daily intake of 400 IU of vitamin-D per day for infants; 600-1,000 IU per day for children; 1000 IU per day for adolescents and pregnant women after 12 weeks’ gestation; and 1000-2000 IU for adults. Apart from egg yolk, fatty fish, and red meat other food products like unsalted white butter, ghee, and milk also supplements vitamin-D. However, vegetarian diet does not provide vitamin-D in inadequate quantities. Unlike western countries like Canada, the dairy products in India are not fortified with vitamin-D.
The reflex should be to avoid drugs if there are alternatives. Ideally, regular sun exposure should provide adequate vitamin-D and folate to avoid health problems. With the popularity of television and gadgets like computers and tablets, most people stay indoors. Hence medical intervention becomes necessary in some cases, even among children.
Vitamin-D supplements should be started only on medical advice as high levels of vitamins interact with medicines prescribed for irregular heartbeats, such as digoxin.
It is contraindicated in patients with high calcium levels, and in those having hyperparathyroidism, kidney stones, and kidney or liver diseases.
Some patients may have hypersensitivity to vitamin-D supplements. Certain medications like phenytoin, barbiturates, etc. reduce absorption of Vitamin-D.7
2. Harmful Effects on Skin
Experts say that excessive use of fairness cream and skin whitening can be harmful, as most such creams contain steroids which can cause permanent skin damage. Besides, neither is the change in complexion long-lasting nor are they significant. There are side-effects too; these creams on prolonged usage can cause depletion of layers of melanin leading to more exposure to sun rays; deteriorating skin health.
A sunscreen with optimal sun protection factor (SPF) has to be chosen based on your location. Use of sunscreen should be monitored, since a period of bare-skinned sun exposure is essential on a daily basis. Sun hats or the sun protective bathing suits can be better alternatives to sunscreen use.
Certain foods, such as those rich in carotenoids (like carrots, apricots, yams, and green leafy vegetables) act as natural sunscreens. American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the use of sunscreen in infants and children below 6 months of age should be avoided.8
EWG guide to sunscreens blatantly states that “Sunscreen should be your last resort.” The website proposes simple sun protection alternatives like clothing, shade, and sunglasses besides checking your outdoor UV index and planning around the sun to avoid over exposure. EWG’s sunscreen database also provides a guide, allowing you to choose an optimal sunscreen. The guide warns against misleading promotions; it rates products based on UV protection and hazardous ingredients, on a score of 0 to 10.9
3. Psychological Impacts
The perpetuation of the fairness advertisements is invariably subjecting a lot of people, and in particular girls with a darker complexion to feel inferior. In addition to the health impact mentioned earlier, the obsession is nothing less than being a racist.
The obsession with having a white color unfortunately also aligns with the deeply ingrained caste system. It is common for Indian households to associate a person with a darker color as belonging to a lower caste.
As majority of the Indian population aren’t as “fair” skinned as the advertisements constantly remind us to be, such advertisements must be banned and all such products that advocate skin whitening should be withdrawn from the market. While it is just a business promotional strategy the fairness cream manufacturing companies, the psychological impact of feeding the notion that “fair” is cool in young children and especially girls is highly objectionable.
It is very important to lead a healthy lifestyle; we must acknowledge the beauty that good health provides. It’s high time we get over ancient bias discriminating people based on color, race, sex, creed, and sorts. Such education needs to be imparted since childhood.
Wrong information is as good as a lie; governments should curtail advertisements of products like fairness creams and skin whitening creams. Teenagers should be made aware of the damage that these products can cause and also why it is important to get sun exposure and avoid vitamin-D deficiency.
Every beauty product should be used with care and dermatologist’s advice should be sought before resorting to any long term skin treatments. Measures need to be implemented to provide vitamin-D supplements in milk and dairy products, with appropriate monitoring.
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- Wurtman, R.J., The effects of light on the human body. Page 69. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/dick/www/pdf/286.pdf
Dr. Kaleem Mohammed graduated as a Bachelor of Physiotherapy in 2014 from Deccan College of Physiotherapy, affiliated to Dr. N.T.R. University of Health Sciences, Vijayawada, India. Dr. Kaleem is an expert at handling physiotherapy needs of patients suffering from orthopedic and spinal conditions and post-surgery rehabilitation. Dr. Kaleem is associated with HealthClues since its inception where he facilitates diagnosis and advanced consultation with senior doctors. He is also a medical researcher and prolific writer who loves sharing insightful commentaries and useful tips to educate the patient community about fitness, treatment options, and post-treatment recovery.