Why Skin Lightening Products Are Still So Prevalent in Pakistan
It’s a typical cold Sunday in Pakistan. On the half-hour drive from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, drivers pass dozens of billboards extolling the benefits of the whitening cream Glow & Lovely, formerly known as Fair & Lovely. These ads feature two photos of the same model, wherein one photo has her complexion significantly lightened. The billboards’ message—lighter is better—is enough to make those with a darker skin color feel diminished.
Colorism, or discrimination against those with darker skin dates back to British colonization in South Asia, including Pakistan. According to Neha Mishra’s India and Colorism: The Finer Nuance, published in 2015, there was not much discrimination amongst Indians in the subcontinent on the basis of skin color dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries. But when British colonizers arrived, they promoted their physical features and attributes as “superior,” gave Indians with lighter skin better jobs, and actively made the lives of dark-skinned people miserable, according to Mishra.
Despite the British leaving South Asia in 1947, the cultural preference for fair skin has not faded. Due to this, the skin-lightening industry is thriving. According to Nikkei Asia, a news organization, the business is worth $7.5 billion in Asia—which accounts for half of the market worldwide—and globally is expected to be worth $24 billion by 2027. Fatima Syed, a dermatologist in Islamabad, gets many requests from patients who want to lighten their skin tone, and it makes her uncomfortable. “They tell me their issues with dark skin and beg me to do something about it,” she says. “There was this one client who brought her daughter. She wasn’t even in her early teens, but her mother wanted me to whiten her child’s skin.” Dr. Syed tried to talk the mother out of it, but the mother refused to listen.
Some Pakistani parents and elders will go to extreme lengths to make their daughters’ skin lighter so they are deemed pretty and suitable for marriage, which is considered an important milestone. “My in-laws are currently looking for a marriage partner for their younger son,” says Sameen Najeeb, a 34-year-old housewife. “Any woman who is not as fair as their son, they will immediately cross her off.”
Najeeb, whose skin color was deemed too dark by her family, was insecure and unconfident with herself growing up. “My parents were never really forceful to me but I took their comments to heart. I would be bombarded with advice on how to keep my skin pale. It was quite painful, really.”
According to Maria Syed, a senior skin specialist at Shifa Hospital, Islamabad, dermatologists do provide skin-lightening treatments to address hyperpigmentation and melasma. Glutathione is injected into the skin on various parts of the face that are darker (although the ingredient can also be consumed as a pill or applied topically).
For many, this ingredient has been considered “magical” for its quick whitening properties since its arrival in Pakistan around 2012; however, there is no evidence that its effects are long term. “The dark skin color comes back anyways,” says Dr. Maria Syed. “Patients are injected 300 to 600 milligrams three times a week, and then we alter the regularity of the doses accordingly.” The clients come back to her to maintain this fairness, but she warns that too many glutathione injections can permanently damage the skin and the liver. “I will discuss the procedures with my clients,” she says. “But I do my utmost in persuading them to not take this procedure. I tell them that it is both damaging and temporary.”
These treatments are risky in the long term, but they’re also cost-prohibitive in the short term for many Pakistani patients, who can’t afford a dermatologist. Because of this, the market for over-the-counter products is thriving. “People will find many ways to get the job done,” Dr. Maria Syed explains. “Glutathione pills and injections are readily available in the market locally and on the Black Market at dirt cheap rates.” As are safer options like vitamin C serums. Add that to mainstream options like Glow & Lovely and Pond’s White Beauty as well as a plethora of recipes both online and in print for homemade whitening masks and creams, and it’s clear that there’s still much progress that needs to happen in the market to reset these colorist beauty standards.
But Sameen is positive about change. “I developed a thick skin. And I also learned how I can still attain success in life despite my skin color,” she says. As she points out, Pakistani actresses Mahira Khan, Ayesha Omar, and Sanam Saeed have actively rejected fairness cream endorsements. Online, there are pages like Womanistan, which promotes self-love and dark skin on its page. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, Unilever (the parent company that owns Glow & Lovely) was forced to change the product name, and Johnson & Johnson dropped skin whitening and lightening products altogether. While there’s still much work to be done, and plenty of accountability for brands making these products, as Sameen muses, change is coming for the better, after all.
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