Mumbai: TISS survey reveals using fairness cream is leading to rise in mental illness

Updated: Aug 12, 2018, 11:27 IST | Rupsa Chakraborty

Findings of first-of-its-kind fairness creams survey by TISS exposes Mumbai as lookist, insecure and utterly under-confident

Mumbai: TISS survey reveals using fairness cream is leading to rise in mental illness
Representational Picture

Twenty-one-year-old Parul Sharma (name changed), who is currently pursuing an MA in English from a reputable college in Mumbai, first started obsessing over her skin colour when her boyfriend said he was breaking up with her because "her skin was too dark". Unchecked use of over-the-counter fairness creams soon caused her to develop a skin infection, which in turn led to depression. Sharma now suffers from dysmorphophobia — a preoccupation with an imagined defect in one's physical appearance — refuses to leave her room or even go to college. Sharma is not alone. Recently, 1,992 people were surveyed from the city for a first-of-its-kind research paper, which points out how even a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, is fixated with the idea of being fair-skinned.

Representational Image Purpose Only
Representational Image Purpose Only

The study, conducted by Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), and published in the international journal, Front Public Health, revealed how both men and women take to using fairness creams at an early age due to pressure from family and peers. Fairer skin is assumed to improve career, marital prospects and increase social status, the research cited.

Led by Dr Hemal Shroff of Centre of Health and Social Sciences, TISS, the study saw participation from 1,238 women and 746 men from Mumbai, of which 63 per cent were in the age group of 18 to 24. Of these, as many as 59.6 per cent women and 46.1 per cent men had used fairness products at some point in their lifetime. "Excessive usage of fairness products is not only considered as a public health issue, it also reinforces racial and social inequalities," said Shroff.

Dr Hemal Shroff, Researcher
Dr Hemal Shroff, Researcher

'Fair is attractive'
As per the survey, 31.2 per cent people used skin-whitening products to look beautiful and 36.2 per cent to look fairer, in order to feel "culturally accepted". Most respondents claimed that they developed a positive body image, if they used these products. Some people said they "looked thinner, felt more attractive and also had better career prospects" when fairer. "Fewer respondents endorsed a belief that they didn't want to be fairer. Thus, the notion of enhanced culture capital associated with fairness appears to be a strongly held belief even among those who are not current users of fairness products," the report stated.

Last year, Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut refused to endorse fairness products, saying she was "ashamed" of actors promoting the same. Shroff's study explains why Ranaut's attempt could be a positive step in this direction. The paper states that 44.6 per cent of the participants accepted that they had used some kind of skin-whitening products in their lives after getting influenced by advertisements. "A substantial number of people, mostly youths, have been influenced by these ads, especially those featuring celebrities," Shroff said.

Then, there is also family pressure on brown-skinned people. As many as 26.7 per cent female and 33.4 per cent male participants said they used it as their family and peers endorsed the idea of "fairness being desirable".

Adverse effects
It was observed that 17 per cent of the participants reported of suffering from adverse side-effects. Several fairness products contain hydroquinone, steroids and mercury that can lead to irritation, inflammation, thinning of skin, abnormalities among newborn babies if used during pregnancy and breast feeding. "These products make the skin vulnerable to bacteria, fungus and viruses. That's why usage of fairness products that has steroids and mercury are banned in several countries. In the long run, it can cause kidney and liver damage," said Dr Batul Patel, a Mumbai-based dermatologist. In May 2017, mid-day had reported that 20 to 30 cosmetic products were under the FDA scanner for violating the Drug and Magic Remedies Act.

Psychological disorders pose a major risk. "Skin whitening products can make a person fair to a certain extent, but people keep expecting more. This makes them unhappy, affecting their self-confidence," said psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada.

Shroff adds, "People with this condition will have thoughts that may cause emotional distress. Someone with dark skin may over-exaggerate the importance of their skin colour in their daily interactions and spend a lot of time thinking negative thoughts. Again, we did not examine this in our study, but it is possible that there is an association."

Dhaval Dave

Dhaval Dave, 29
'I have never used any fairness cream because I don't believe in them. I am proud of my colour — we all should be. I don't want to be something that
I am not'

Nikita Ghadi

Nikita Ghadi, 19,
TYBMS student, Patkar College
'My mother recently brought me a fairness cream. I have been using it for the last four months. Apart from making my skin brighter, I feel protected from outdoor pollution.'

Research stats
* Of the total participants, who claimed to use fairness products, 63% were in the age group of 18 to 24
* At 58%, the student community saw maximum fairness cream users, with 13.5% homemakers also claiming to use them regularly
* 48.5% women and 47.2% men said they were influenced by media and advertisements to use creams
* Nearly 63% men and women used fairness creams to look attractive

Need for regulation
At present, there is no regulation for the "booming" fairness product industry in India. By 2023, the women's fairness cream industry is expected to hit Rs 5,000cr. "There is an obvious need for regulations of fairness products by the government. Regulations should take place at the level of ingredients in the products, as well as at the level of advertising of products," the report reads.

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