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The dangers of fairness creams

  • Published at 12:29 am January 19th, 2019
Fairness creams_Syed Zakir Hossain
Fairness creams seen displaying at a shop in Dhaka Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Dermatologists warn that fairness solutions often come with ingredients that do more harm than good

Kohinoor, the company that houses the legendary Tibet line of creams, was established in 1956, well known for Tibet Snow, their top selling face cream marketed as a “cream for all seasons.” They quickly became a household name with middle and lower-middle class consumers with their fairness cream range: the Tibet Fair and Care, Tibet Snow and Tibet Pomade. With heavy marketing, celebrity endorsements and ads by leading Bangladeshi actresses including Moushumi, the product promises to help users shine and succeed like the actresses that endorse the brand. The products had been a local favourite, available at almost every small store in the earlier days of its product cycle, and despite competition from other local and international products sales are still going strong. Tibet made a whopping Tk296 crore in the 2013-14 fiscal year, marking a steady increase from Tk272 crore in 2012-13.

Today, as the majority of imported products from the Tk150-billion cosmetic market in Bangladesh is targeted at the upper-class and upper-middle class, it is the lower class and middle class that allow the local cosmetic companies to thrive and grow. A study by SNV Bangladesh to assess the provision of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for the female RMG workers in Bangladesh resulted in a surprising finding. Unmarried female garment workers were willing to spend up to 5% of their (approximately Tk8,000-Tk10,000 per month) monthly income on consumer products such as shampoo, lotion, face wash, talcum powder. Married women spent up to 6%, with both groups showing a surprising inclination towards spending more on beauty products (skincare creams and soaps) than personal health and hygiene (sanitary napkins and contraceptives). In other words, women prioritize vanity over hygiene, even at the expense of depleting disposable income. 

Dermatologists warn that these fairness solutions often come with ingredients that do more harm than good. Many of these creams do not have all the ingredients listed, and most users are unaware of exactly what they are using on their skin. Over-the-counter creams contain topical steroids or parabens that are usually left unlisted. Not only do they lead to permanent scars and allergies, they can also permanently darken one’s skin with constant use. Bleaching agents such as the chemical hydroquinone, one that is now banned in Japan, Europe and Australia, can be particularly harmful, leading to the blackening of skin over time. 

In late 2012, local cosmetic company Lata Herbal was fined Tk2.5 lakh, with police ordered to sue their chairman Ayub Ali for making fairness creams using toxic chemicals, including mercury. The manufacturing factory was sealed off, with officials from Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) finding that the use of the creams led to skin discolouration as well as skin rashes. Currently, Lata Herbal is back in business, with their website proudly stating: "We are successfully doing business with a good track record, because we have a large number of chemists as well as skilled manpower. We have a scientific laboratory with modern equipment. We are following GMP of international standard." The website also has a hotline number for dealers, sales representative jobs as well as any queries customers may have. 

Despite these risks, the market is ripe with skin fairness creams, skin brightening soaps and herbal creams that promise to lighten, brighten and eliminate any signs of dark spots and dark skin. According to a 2013 study, “Strategy for Maximizing Customer Lifetime Value: A Study on Fairness Cream Users of Bangladesh”, from a sample of 300 fairness cream users, it was found that fear of experimenting with new brands was one reason consumers preferred and continue to use tried and tested brands. "Customers wants to stick with a particular brand because they fear that frequent changing of fairness creams may be dangerous for his or her skin," the study explains. If the cream in question is one with harmful ingredients, this brand loyalty could prove to be more dangerous to users than those that switch brands. 

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