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The Fair and Unfair of Being Lovely: Why it is Important to Read Labels of Skincare Products

A customer picks up 'Fair & Lovely' brand of skin lightening product from a shelf in a shop in Ahmedabad. (Image: Reuters)

A customer picks up 'Fair & Lovely' brand of skin lightening product from a shelf in a shop in Ahmedabad. (Image: Reuters)

While companies are changing terms like 'fairness' to 'whitening' and 'brightening, internet is also seeing a steady rise in 'untaboing whitening' groups that advocate fairness products and procedures.

I was to blog about the marketing gimmicks on the label. But a bigger gimmick unraveled and everyone was getting emotional about. Unilever made a "big announcement". It’s dropping FAIR (for its probable synonym) from you know which product name…every Indian knows. Since 60% of the population uses it *drumroll*. Wondering why this move was close on the heels of its competitor Johnson & Johnson's move to ban all whitening products in Asia and the Middle East.

Alas! In time India will wake up to a world where every Indian is a changed man (woman) now. Fair is no longer the only lovely. No Classified will read Wanted Fair or Extremely White Bride. Kali shall again be just name of a Goddess. Actors and models of all shades of brown will surface (not just for playing the villain or rural roles). No one shall be bothered if Radha is gori and Kanha not.

No one would care about gore gaal or chittiyan kalaaiyyan. Fair people shall no more be the "saaf" color people. No Insta filters will whitewash you. No Youtubers will show home remedies for fair skin in just one week. Even the dark child will get the center stage. Every girl will be lovely and every boy handsome to get their dream jobs, attention, and spouse. No pregnant women will have to gulp down glasses of saffron milk to whiten her unborn child. No infants will shriek of the pain of whitening ubtans. No spending cash loads on peeling sessions and whitening drip appointments. No one will ask me to do 'something; about my daughter's dark complexion.

So much more is going to change in our daily lives. All as us can now enjoy your favorite product with the same harmless ingredients with a new name and packaging without being shamed.

For crying out loud.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Did the white obsession come in that tube. Is the white reverence British hangover (of 73 years!!). Who are we fooling? This 4100 cr revenue cream was forced upon us. The tribalistic mentality was shoved down our throat by introducing this cream 45 years ago. If it was The Mughals and the British who claimed themselves fair and superior, why did WE have to internalize white supremacy to this extent and still continue to do so? It's true that we are inheritors of the wrongs of our ancestors. Nothing can be done about it, more so a reason to stop blaming the past. We are a brown country discriminating against brown. Its high time we stop insulting ourselves.

Unilever did a cosmetic to its golden geese, after feeding off on pre-existing social prejudice for years in a melanin-rich, newly empowered economy, not on moral grounds. But maybe only to sound politically correct in times of #Black lives matter. Maybe the social media movements like #DarkisBeautiful #BeautyWell Project #melaninmovement, #unfairandlovely #India’sGotColor did create a dent there. Maybe it fears that may we go the Rwanda way and ban such products completely. Maybe because the innovative and effective ingredients are gaining pace. Maybe because the word fairness is falling out of favour and is long been replaced by whitening, lightening, brightening in other countries. Maybe because the unlawful toxic mercury bleaching cream black markets are spreading its fangs beyond Africa and the Philippines.

And talking about fairness being uncool, there is a parallel social media presence of skin forums "untabooing whitening”. These are support groups of committed skin lighteners and these are fueled by a superfluity of skin products and procedures (illegal ones too) which we sold under a variety of names but "fairness", which you and me also have been buying unwittingly. Agree, whitening is a personal choice and should not be shamed. But more often than not this ‘personal choice’ is stemmed from internalized colourism.

Before colorism takes another avatar… we stop need to stop this whataboutery…snip off the roots of white supremacy which are entangled with gender bias, casteism, classism, even loveable. It’s time ‘fair’ people address this issue more than dark people. It’s people of every shade take up all kinds of platforms unapologetically. We need to rework our vocabulary of beauty. We need to stop abrading our skins and self-esteem. Let’s pull down this toxic relic of colonialism… Let’s not isolate the beauty industry as the sole cause of color-based prejudice. Let’s tell the world we are a great tropical country very comfortable in our skin. Let’s be colourblind when we meet people…Let’s not ask the mirror, who is fairest of them all?

Once upon a time cosmetics shopping was simple. Creams meant Charmis, and talcum powder meant Pond’s. Then came the 90’s 'Beauty Boom', and cosmetics what was a trickle in the humble kirana shops snowballed to flood the supermarkets and malls. When you have to choose from the plethora of products, the labels come handy, at least they pose to be so. All too often, the uber-long Latin names, numbers, and symbols seem more confusing than helpful. I agree it can be daunting for all of us to try and size up the label as a whole, so you need to break it down. So grab your favorite bottle or jar of cosmetic product and reading glasses if you use one, as I walk you through it. Now, there is the "impression" side of the label which is mostly the front label, and the "information" side of the label which is at the back. I suggest ignoring the front, for now.

Let’s strike off the easier ones.

#1. The Generic name of the cosmetics, like is it a night cream, or a depilatory cream (you don’t want them mixed!).

#2. The name of the manufacturer and complete address of the premises of the manufacturer where the cosmetic has been manufactured. Provided that if the cosmetic is contained in a very small size container where the address of the manufacturer cannot be given, the name of the manufacturer and his principal place of manufacture shall be along with pin code. This is provided for you to send any complaints or compliments regarding the products.

#3. The distributor's or marketeer's company name and address.

#4. The place of manufacture. Sometimes the names of many countries are written. In that case, the underlined name is the country where the product information file (PIF) is kept.

#5. A declaration of the net contents or fill size expressed in terms of weight for solids, fluid measure for liquids, and weight for semi-solids. Except for a package of perfume, toilet water or the like, the net content of which does not exceed 60 ml or any package of solid or semi-solid cosmetic the net content of which does not exceed 30 grams like lipsticks. The "e" symbol following the fill size indicates its in accordance with EU requirements.

#6. An adequate direction for sale use (like for retail or in spas).

#7. Any warning, caution, or storage or any special direction required to be observed by you.

#8. A statement of the names and quantities of the ingredients that are hazardous or poisonous, if misused, separately.

#9. cosmetics which are also drugs must first identify the drug ingredient as “active ingredient or Actives before listing the cosmetic ingredients with its concentration. For example, zinc oxide in Sunscreen

#10. A distinctive batch number the number by reference to which details of manufacture of the particular batch from which the product is taken preceded by the letter B. Except for cosmetics containing 10 grams or less if the cosmetic is in solid or semi- solid-state, and 25ml or less. In the case of soaps, instead of the batch number, the month and year of manufacture of soap shall be given on the label.

#11. The manufacturing license number is preceded by the letter M. It is the license for manufacturing a particular category of product.

#12.Best Before Date: If the shelf life of the product is less than 24 (30 months for international brands )it must be labeled with a best before date (date of minimum durability or minimal shelf life). The “hourglass” symbol can be used to indicate best before date.

If the shelf life is greater than 24 months (30 months outside India) best before is not required, and the Period After Opening (PAO) must be indicated using the “open jar” symbol. The product is safe to use within the indicated period after opening.

#13.MRP which should be inclusive of the GST

So, you see most ARE Self Explanatory, no rocket science here.

Then comes the ingredients list or the I.N.C.I list… AH HA! The multi-syllabic jargon-filled gobbledygook (looks like I added one more) that twist your tongue and remind you of Harry Potter spells. Take a deep breath, don’t try escaping as yet.

The list of ingredients, present in a concentration of more than one percent shall be listed in the descending order of weight or volume at the time they are added, followed by those in the concentration of less than or equal to one percent, in any order, and preceded by the word "INGREDIENTS".

Again this need not appear for packs of less than 60 ml of liquids and 30 gm of solid and semi-solids.

The seemingly incomprehensible ingredient names derive their terminology from a dictionary called the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. (I.N.C.I) . This is the formulator language, complicated but more organized and universal for all cosmetic companies. For example, AQUA is water for any country irrespective of whatever they call it in their languages. Understanding it is easier than it seems and can be excelled by experience.

So, generally look out for the first 5 ingredients. They make up the volume of the product. Look out for the hero ingredient, it should be close to the top, especially, if its natural. The synthetic actives could be effective in lower concentrations too. There is no defined 1% or below the line. This imaginary 1% line is generally after the 6th-7th ingredient. Yeah, this part of the list is longer and usually contains the "key ingredient" (bummer!...I know). Plant ingredients are easy to spot because they are listed with their Latin names (always two words) and common names in brackets for example Rosmarinus officinalis, (rosemary) oil.

Finally, the fragrance is listed as fragrance or Parfum it can contain any number of ingredients that the companies need not disclose. Its changing though and companies are disclosing the constituents.

All of this information is a legal requirement so if a brand doesn’t commit to these labeling requirements it may not commit to safety too.

I am not discussing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ingredients here. Go ahead and explore as many labels, make friends with them. They can help you make or break your skin and help you save a few bucks. And, so that buying a moisturizer doesn’t involve opening 50 tabs on Chrome and comparing not just the ingredient list and product reviews.. here are some resources/ apps helpful for decoding the INCI names and knowing more about the ingredients Skin Deep, Paula’s Choice, Cosmetics Info, Chemical Maze, INCIDecoder.

I hope you are better equipped to do your own fact-finding to select the product that will do the most good for your skin. And even if you can't decipher every line of the list if the brand is an established one it is unlikely to contain the potentially harmful or toxic ingredients. Do lookout for something that you are allergic to. Inform Don’t obsess. Skincare is fun because of the small moments and joys of experimenting. And I don’t intend to take any of this from you

You could share the secrets and teach someone else to read skincare ingredients labels. Got any more questions? Please share in the comments

Until then…keep exploring.

(This piece is written by Priyanka Golchha Kothari was originally published on The Skience Project on WordPress.