Whitening Cream Advertisements and its Negative impact

Nilima Mausumi: 

In most South Asian countries there is a common perception about women’s beauty. If she is light skinned, she is considered beautiful. This applies not only in Asia but also in Africa and other countries. Bangladesh, a country in the south Asian region, has inherited its own culture. Where, there is a great diversity in skin colour. Some are dark while others are light skinned. Historically, Bangladeshi women have long held a respectful identity – they are considered as a race of mothers.

But recently, researchers have found that skin whitening or fairness cream advertisements are playing a major role in creating skin-based discrimination in society. In India, there is a movement known as “Dark is Beautiful” to eliminate the people’s obsession with fair skin. But in Bangladesh, people have little awareness of this. In Bangladesh, television advertisements show that fair skin is necessary for women’s success in daily life and career.

Whitening cream manufacturers advertise their products through various media but this essay will be limited to electronic media, specifically to television. It will attempt to find: to what extent the widespread skin whitening cream advertisements through electronic media in Bangladesh impact negatively on women – including damage to women’s self-esteem, problem of users associated with health, economy and environmental issues and increased social tension.

Bangladeshi television channels broadcast a variety of skin whitening cream (In Bangladesh, known as fairness cream) advertisements. In one advertisement fair skinned women are portrayed as having perfect lives. In another example, a woman with fair skin credits her skin whitening cream for her radiant appearance all day. Further, one advertisement shows a young, dark-skinned woman in love with her singing teacher who takes no notice of her. After applying the recommended skin whitening cream for a short period, the teacher suddenly notices how beautiful she is and reciprocates love. Success with job applications is also commonly credited to skin lightening products as exemplified in an advertisement where a dark-skinned actor initially misses out on a role but after using the whitening cream and attaining fair skin, successfully gains it (YouTube, 2014).

According to a survey headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a large number of populations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, especially women and young girls, use skin-lightening cream. The manufacturers broadcast enticing advertisements to attract customers. Most of the time, advertisers make false and misleading promises. In Bangladesh, Unilever alone spent US $7 million in 2006 on advertising Fair & Lovely (Islam et al, 2006). As it is a well-known and multinational company and many people believe the message of advertisements and buy the product.

In the advertisement, only fair women are showed to attract the customer. These advertisements present women, as products. There is currently a debate among the civil society on the content of the advertisements, as the manufacturer perceived them as hurting the public sentiment. According to a survey result, conducted by the centre for advertising studies, University of Illinois’s Cummings noted that 51 per cent of consumers felt that the advertisement insulted them (Shavitt et al, 1998). Similarly contemporary advertisements for skin whitening cream regarding women are controversial in many ways in Bangladesh.

These advertisements suggest that skin colour is a key factor in attaining success in life. Viewing the advertisements dark skinned women feel inferior, lose self-confidence and face various discrimination regarding colour. There is a common outlook that fair skinned women are more attractive than dark women. Likewise in the private sector, fair skin is regarded an asset to get a good job. From childhood, family members, neighbours and classmates make jokes about dark skinned people. In this way dark skinned women are oppressed in the society.

The manufacturers, who invest money to advertise their product, benefit but the customers are deprived – ethically and financially. The price of whitening cream varies depending on the brand. Regardless of price, however scientists say there is little evidence to suggest they change women’s skin colour. The Head of the Department of Dermatology in All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, Dr. R. K. Pandhi, states, “He has never come across a medical study that validates the claims of skin whitening by applying skin creams.”(Sinha, 2000). Skin whitening creams cannot be effective without the use of skin bleaching chemicals such as steroids, mercury salts, hydroquinone and other skin damaging chemicals (Islam et al, 2006). Thus using whitening creams is simply a waste of time and money.

Generally, the advertisements claim that there are no harmful ingredients in the whitening creams. Not all but some whitening creams contain hazardous ingredients, such as, inorganic mercury compound, hydroquinone, and steroids (Fact Sheet: Mercury in Skin Lightening Cosmetics). They suggest the customers to use the cream on a regular basis to achieve best results, for months or for years. Regular use of mercury based whitening cream can result in various health hazards for instance-pigmented skin, allergy problems, skin rashes and kidney damages. Whitening creams cannot make a woman fair but may help her to moisturise skin. If any company offers to turn skin fairer by using their product, it would be hazardous to the users health.

By using skin whitening cream, women play a role in contaminating the environment. Many researchers agree that many fairness cream ingredients are harmful to health as well as to the environment. Mercury is one of the harmful ingredients used in many fairness creams.

The following table shows the concentration of Mercury in different fairness cream.

SI. No. Sample ID Sample name Mercury Content


1. CREAM-001 PONDS 3450
2. CREAM-002 Shumons Aroma 3361
3. CREAM-003 Olay 3603
4. CREAM-004 Fair & Handsome 3566
5. CREAM-005 Fair &lovely Ayurvedic 4004
6. CREAM-006 Fair & Lovely Max Fairness 4175
7. CREAM-007 Modern 3931
8. CREAM-008 Garnier 4643
9. CREAM-009 Botanic 3929
10. CREAM-010 Modern 4152
11. CREAM-011 Tibet 3752
12. CREAM-012 Fair & handsome (Emami) 4133

Ref. Situation of Mercury sources and hotspots in Bangladesh (2012)

The researchers collected some highly demanded fairness creams from the market and analysed them in Bangladesh Council of Science and Industrial Research (BCSIR). All the samples were analysed in Atomic Absorption Spectrometer using Cold Vapour Unit. The above table shows the Hg concentration in each product. When the user has contact with water then mercury enters into the environment, transforms and affects the food chain of the water. By eating affected fish pregnant women carry the highly toxic methyl mercury and which can cause neuro- developmental deficit in children WHO (2011).

Whitening cream television advertisements play an important role in developing and perpetuating social tension in Bangladesh. The advertisements portray women’s roles in such a way that it seems women need only beauty to succeed in life. According to this theory, beauty means fair skin which impacts negatively on women in society. The roles in the advertisement claim marrying or dreaming to marry depends on one’s skin colour. So girls, as well as, their parents worry about their daughter’s marriage prospects. During the courtship bridegrooms may demand high dowries to marry dark skinned women. On the other hand, paler women can marry handsome, rich husbands easily. The presentation of women in the whitening cream advertisements is always exploitative. Men compare women in their lives to what they see on the television screen. The unrealistic and adverse portrayal of women in the advertisements encourages men to exploit them. This in turn can lead to domestic violence and sexual harassment of the women. Furthermore, women indulge in many unsafe ways to change their dark colour and finally they are deceived. It is clear that these advertisements can create difficulties to maintaining social values and safe environments for women both home and in society.

This essay has explored the negative impact of skin whitening cream advertisements on women in Bangladesh. However, the issue has become a global phenomenon. Compared to other countries, Bangladeshi women relatively unaware of the issue. According to the ingredients marked in the whitening cream label, it would be better to be considered as drugs not cosmetics. It is well known that advertisements exaggerate information and rarely mention any negative side effects of the product. Electronic media should come forward and address these issues as they might play a vital role in minimizing the negative impact. Before going on air the advertising media should ensure the quality and public safety. It is their social responsibility. Many developed countries have long banned mercury based whitening creams although they are available through the internet. In contrast, Bangladesh government conducts irregular mobile courts and punish the perpetrators in an attempt to combat the issue. Manufacturers should stop showing stereotype and exploitative role of women in their advertisements.

Government, civil society, and general people should raise their voices so that false advertising is banned and the purpose of using creams will open new horizons. Indeed, most of the international brands advertise their products with the same content in Bangladesh. They show little consideration for the local customs and values of the country. Governments should formulate and implement appropriate laws to censor the content of the advertisements. Meanwhile, there should be international laws and a monitoring authority under the world health organization (WHO). In addition, society should change its bias towards dark skin.

In conclusion it can be said that, the advertisements of skin whitening cream should be banned. Indeed, skin cream may be necessary to maintain good skin and protect from the weather but there should not be any creams that offer to change one’s colour.

Nilima Mausumi is a civil servant of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Currently she is working as an Assistant Director in Bangladesh Betar. She has completed masters on Public Policy and Management from Monash University, Australia. Her favorite hobbies  include reading books and traveling. Her prime interest is to work for the betterment of Bangladeshi women.







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