Skincare product commercials set the definition of beauty, said 45 percent of girls and boys in a 2018 study done in the Indian city of Mysore
At a time when neighbouring India has proposed punishment for encouraging a bias towards fair skin, fairness product manufacturers and importers in Bangladesh continue their business without any restrictions.
Bangladeshis are mostly dark-skinned, with different shades of brown making one's feature stand out from another. But everyone now wants to be fair or fairer than whatever shade they have, thanks to advertisements by multinational companies like Unilever, Olay, Neutrogena, and Garnier.
It is not only products of these brands that are in use. To grab a share of the flourishing skin-care business – estimated to be worth Tk800 crore according to industry insiders – many small, not-so-known to unknown products have entered the market.
Their promise: Better, quicker results from the products of the other.
While famous brands spend crores of taka on advertisements, many unregulated products sneak their way into the consumers' hands through word-of-mouth and social media marketing, including YouTube.
A quick online search could help anyone choose a product from many options; some lure clients by promising results in as quickly as three days. At the same time, there are YouTube videos recommending that one should prefer imported products from Korea, Pakistan or Thailand to the ones from China.
It is easy to be motivated by those commercials, with celebrities like Priyanka Chopra or Shah Rukh Khan endorsing fairness products like Unilever's Pond's White Beauty and Emami's Fair and Handsome.
Strong protests against the commercials in India, where such products had been launched before anywhere else, recently pushed the government to draft a legal amendment proposing a maximum five-year jail term and a fine of Tk50 lakh for advertising magic remedies by fairness products.
Should Bangladesh not follow in the footsteps of India this time too to undo the "white effects" that Indian commercials have left on us until now?
The damaging impact of beauty products on skin
Unilever says that leading skin-lightening products such as Fair and Lovely and Pond's offer "proven skin-lightening solution" with vitamin B3 and sun protection factor (SPF).
However, all chemicals that can make the skin brighter also bring damage to it to some extent, according to Mala Khan of the Designated Reference Institute for Chemical Measurements under the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
Even if products of the global brands are free of such chemicals and are not harmful, their advertisements promoting fair skin provoke those who cannot afford them to use the cheaper products available in the market.
Observing the trend, grocery stores in the farthest corners from cities started keeping fairness products on their shelves, said Muhammad Misqatus Saleheen, a dermatologist at Khulna Medical College and Hospital.
People from impoverished backgrounds buy these products with their limited disposable money. No one knows what chemicals they contain as these little-known companies are unlikely to have any quality control.
But from the skin problems that users suffer, Saleheen said, it could be suspected that the products contain chemicals like steroid and mercury, among others, which make one's skin fairer but also thinner.
When the skin is exposed to the sun, it gets burn patches, infections and other complications, said Saleheen, who has treated many boys and girls between 18 and 25.
"Among those who come to the public hospital with complaints after using fairness creams, about 70 percent are girls and the rest are boys," he added.
In his view, the damage has been brought on by Fair and Lovely by creating a demand for fairness products.
Commercial campaigns promoting fair skin
Fair and Lovely, a product of British-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever, has been the market leader in India, gaining the label of the fastest growing brand among the 500 million euro plus skincare brands, as claimed on its website.
The product that came to the market in 1975 in a tube as a fairness cream can now be found in all forms of skin care cosmetics – face wash, soap and body lotion.
Specifically designed for Asian women, it became a hit in the market, tapping the prevailing societal bias towards women with fair skin.
Other global brands followed Unilever, realising the market size.
Taking a step forward, Indian company Emami launched Fair and Handsome in 2005, with popular Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan as its brand ambassador.
With time, fair skin became synonymous with healthy skin and beauty.
Fair and Lovely is now aiming to reach at least 5 million women in Asia and Africa by this year through the Fair and Lovely Career Foundation. Since 2013, Unilever says, the foundation has been helping "women secure a better future through education."
However, Professor Gitiara Nasreen of Mass Communication and Journalism at Dhaka University considers it as just another marketing strategy, which otherwise seems devoid of any business interest.
"If Unilever's intention were to help women, why could it not offer opportunities for skill development and scholarships in its name…Why Fair and Lovely?"
Referring to advertisements where celebrities appear, Prof Gitiara said they help perpetuate the common but wrong perceptions in society and also intensify those.
Many a time, there were attempts in Bangladesh too to raise awareness and public opinion against the broadcast of advertisements of fairness products, she said.
"The media had never been cooperative and never shed light on those efforts because the brands spent huge money on advertisements in the print and electronic media," she added.
The commercials set the definition of beauty, said 45 percent of girls and boys in a 2018 study done in the Indian city of Mysore.
Moreover, 48 percent said the advertisements intensify the obsession for fair skin.
Shermind Nilormi of Jahangirnagar University's Economics Department said the government should introduce legal deterrents discouraging such advertisements.
It will not change things overnight, but it will cause a ripple for change, she added.