The international brand Nivea sells a wider range of products for men, including face washes, scrubs, and lotions that offer “oil control,” “all-in-one” solutions,” and “dark spot” reduction. However, of its five face cleansers, four carry the “10x whitening effect” label, while two of its three face creams carry the whitening tag. Outside India, the company focuses on selling products for sensitive or oily skin. Emails sent to Nivea did not elicit a response.

Nivea’s portfolio of men’s skin care products, many of which carry a label promising “10x whitening.”
Image: Company website

Hindustan Unilever (HUL), the Indian arm of the Dutch-British conglomerate, has been selling Fair & Lovely for men since the late 2000s. The brand is now endorsed by Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan and the range includes creams and face cleansers—all of which are whitening products. The Fair & Lovely Men Max Oil-Control Fairness face wash, for instance, promises “visible fairer-looking skin.” HUL’s Pond’s brand also sells a men’s grooming range that has a few products that promise a whitening effect, alongside anti-pollution and oil control effects.  HUL declined to respond to email queries sent by Quartz.

Image for article titled Beauty companies are obsessed with turning Indian men white
Image: company website

Meanwhile, L’Oréal-owned Garnier’s portfolio is more diversified but a number of its products also promise skin whitening, such as the Power White face wash, the Acno Fight day cream, Intense Fresh face wash, and the Power Light range of face wash and moisturisers. Five of its eight products offer a fairness effect, according to information available on the company’s website.

Garnier’s men’s skin care offerings.
Image: company website

L’Oréal did not respond to requests for comments.

Brand experts, however, believe that all these products are just a reflection of India’s biased society.

Not so fair

In India, as in other parts of the world, light skin is the culturally accepted and endorsed form of beauty, and children absorb this message at a young age.

According to a 2015 research report by Nielsen, urban Indian men believe that fair skin can improve professional prospects.

The cultural pressure to look fair, argues Kiran Khalap, branding expert and founder at communications consultancy Chlorophyll, is something inherent in our society, not manufactured by companies. “And it is certainly not restricted to India: China and Japan have had skin-whitening products for centuries, well before they met Western ‘white’ people,” he said.

However, there is a growing awareness among consumers that companies are exploiting their insecurities, and critics have taken some of the biggest fairness brands, and the celebrities who endorse them, to task for their casual discrimination.

Earlier this month, Bollywood actor Abhay Deol took to Facebook to trounce his fellow actors who earn millions from endorsing fairness creams. This comes a few years after actress Nandita Das launched the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign to encourage Indians to embrace a wider definition of beauty.

These efforts are slowly making a difference, increasing awareness and encouraging consumers to take pride in their natural skin tones. That means Indian companies will eventually have to change their approach.

“My sense is that brands will wake up to the new reality, and you will see propositions reworked around clearer skin (and) glow, rather than pure fairness,” Leo Burnett’s Sinha said.

Rajesh Krishnamurthy, business head for the consumer product division at The Himalaya Drug Company, believes that over time the men’s grooming category will evolve to include a wider range of products, including those for normal skin, just like in the women’s skin care category.

“Companies are increasingly realising that you cannot continue to bullshit consumers anymore; these are educated young men who will question what you sell to them,” said Shantanu Deshpande, co-founder and CEO of the male-grooming startup Bombay Shaving Company.

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