Johnson & Johnson Pulled Whitening Creams off Shelves in Asia. But Can That Dent a Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry?

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Against the backdrop of a global movement against systemic racism, corporate giant Johnson & Johnson joined the growing list of companies to face a reckoning over the role their products have played in perpetuating discrimination, announcing it would no longer sell skin-lightening products in Asia and the Middle East.

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson—following similar moves from companies flogging everything from pancake mix, to toothpaste, to trendy floral dresses—acknowledged what many critics of the products have said for years: namely, that they perpetuate colorism in Asian societies where fair skin is prized.

“Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Neutrogena and Clean & Clear dark-spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” the company said in its statement. “This was never our intention — healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

The company will no longer produce or ship the lines, which were only sold and distributed in Asia and the Middle East.

This decision comes amid renewed conversations about colorism, which while distinct from racism, is inextricably tied to and rooted in it. Asia has an entrenched colorism problem, and each country has a distinct history and context that shapes how skin color is regarded as a signifier of status, or the lack thereof.

Johnson & Johnson, along with fellow industry heavyweights Unilever and Procter & Gamble, was among the companies accused of hypocrisy for voicing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests while continuing to profit from the sale of whitening products. Buzzfeed News, for example, called out Johnson & Johnson’s sale of fairness creams while simultaneously donating $200,000 to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter in a public show of support.

The global skin-lightening market, which is growing every year, is expected to be a $13.7 billion industry by 2025, with Asia-Pacific accounting for 54.3 percent of that figure, according to a 2019 Grand View Research report.

Even with Johnson & Johnson pulling out, brand names like Pond’s White Beauty, Lotus Herbals Whiteglow, and Fair & Lovely will likely continue to dominate drug store shelves across Asia, and questions remain as to what impact, if any, this latest development will have.

Kosum Omphornuwat, director of the master’s program in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Thailand’s Thammasat University, said she doubted that one U.S.-based brand pulling their skin-lightening products off the shelf—especially for political reasons—would have any major impact on the Asian skin-whitening product market.

Omphornuwat said she has scoured the internet for national analysis about colorism following the Johnson & Johnson decision, but her search has largely been fruitless, only turning up translated articles about the decision itself. While the Johnson & Johnson decision may seem major in Europe and America, she said, the same isn’t true in Thailand.

Consumers in Thailand see pale skin as the ideal standard of beauty, she said, and the quest to attain that ideal doesn’t end with cream—pills and IV drips are also among the treatments that promise to lighten consumers’ skin tones.

“The mindset is so deep and very difficult to change,” Omphornuwat told VICE News. “It has been like this for years and years and years.”

That mindset is personal for Mikaela Bautista, 18, a Filipina American.

“I grew up hating the color of my skin,” she told VICE News. “I grew up thinking that the lighter you were, the prettier you were.”

As the darkest in her family, she would be bullied by friends and compared to fairer cousins. Family members would tell her to stay indoors rather than play outside, or to use Likas Papaya, a skin-whitening soap, even as a 6-year-old. For Bautista, Johnson & Johnson’s decision is a step in the right direction.

Different countries have different societal values, and therefore, different marketing tactics. In Japan and the Philippines, lighter skin is tied to attractiveness and marriageability; in Korea it’s tied to youthfulness.

In North America and Europe, meanwhile, the word “whitening” is avoided altogether, and instead the marketing focuses on spot treatment and brightening. In Asia, however, the approach is often more assertive.

In the Philippines, for example, a billboard for the skin-whitener GlutaMAX pictures a fair skinned woman facing off with a darker skinned woman. “Simply when you are white, and you’re beautiful already. It’s unfair, right? Don’t be angry, be GlutaMAX,” the tagline reads in Filipino.

But while Omphornuwat remains dubious that meaningful change will come as a result of Johnson & Johnson’s move, she hopes companies in Asia think more carefully about racism’s inherent links to their products, noting that many in Thailand just uncritically equate fair skin with objective beauty without a second thought.

“I think it’s very difficult for them to associate this, because racism is very deep inside,” she said. “It’s so normalized, that they cannot see it at all.”

“They just think this is white, the color, but they don’t think the pursuit of the white color is linked with racism,” she added. “It will take some time to educate society, because here in Thailand, it’s very deep.”

Gideon Lasco, a Filipino physician and medical anthropologist, said that while the Johnson & Johnson decision was remarkable, the history of the pursuit of white skin in Asia is more nuanced.

“While not denying the influence of global beauty standards, as well as colonial legacies, we should also acknowledge that people's sense of aesthetics cannot be reduced to a matter of race and racism,” Lasco told VICE News.

“I think we need to recognize that the meanings of skin color vary from place to place—while it is very much a racialized topic in the US, it is not so much the case in Asian countries,” he said.

But both he and Omphornuwat agree: these companies both capitalize on, and reinforce, the aspiration for lighter skin, and Johnson & Johnson’s decision makes space for a conversation about the ethical responsibilities the beauty industry should bear for that.

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