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Are 'brighteners' bottling the idea of fair beauty?

by Vanessa GrecoCTV News
March 25th, 2012

Boutique shelves have long been stocked with the promise of bolder lashes, fuller lips, clearer skin and countless other products branded with aspirational adjectives.

But it seems the beauty industry in North America has a bright new buzzword and critics say it carries the uneasy suggestion that fair skin is somehow best.

More and more luxury cosmetics companies in Canada and the United States are selling products that claim to "brighten" skin tone, or "illuminate" the customer by making their complexion more "radiant."

Already popular in the Asian beauty market, many of these off-the-shelf illuminators from retailers such as Holt Renfrew and Sephora pledge to erase discoloured spots, even out skin tone and minimize the appearance of acne scars, among other promises. But for some, these seemingly well-intentioned creams and serums bear a resemblance to cosmetics that claim to whiten skin.

Variations of the word "bright" are splashed across squeeze tubes and pump bottles at Cathy Phuong's cosmetics kiosk in Toronto's Chinatown. Sealed off in a glass display case, one balm vows to whiten skin while protecting against wrinkles and ultra-violet rays. Another one claims to have "white balancing" properties, a phrase that apparently isn't reserved for cameras.

"It makes your skin tone look more balanced," says Phuong, who is originally from Vietnam.

Leaning over her display, Phuong says her predominantly Asian clientele seek out these products to lighten so-called dark spots, rather than alter overall skin tone.

Standing nearby is Emmy Lin, a 23-year-old woman from China who says she wants to get rid of the blackheads around her nose. Her face doesn't reveal any blemishes; still she scans a bottle of "UV Plus Whitening Foundation" by Korean company Vidi Vici.

Outside of ethnic supermarkets and dermatologists offices, skin brighteners haven't had a strong presence at mainstream stores in North America, says Mary Lisa Gavenas, author of "Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry."

Until now, that is. Cosmetics counters have started to carry "brighteners" from tastemakers such as Estee Lauder, Bobbi Brown, shu uemura and La Mer. Shiseido's "White Lucent Brightening Protective Cream" promises a glowing complexion, NARS' "Brightening Serum" pledges to amp up "dull" skin, while Jurlique's "Purely White Skin Brightening Essence" vows to make you radiant.

More affordable brands such as Garnier and Marcelle are selling "BB creams" -- also known as blemish or beauty balms overseas. A recent issue of American Vogue even featured a sidebar touting the merits of similar "illuminating" balms, notes Gavenas.

But unlike their similarly named predecessors, the labels for most of these new products in North America omit the words "whitening" and "lightening."

A back-lit shelf of BB creams at a Sephora cosmetics store in Toronto suggests they do anything but lighten. Boxes for some of these items are so riddled with verbs they read like an old-school comic strip: "Conceal! Moisturize! Protect! Camouflage! Rejuvenate!"

Back in Chinatown, beautician Cecilia Lo says she has a product that can deliver on all those promises. The only difference? She refers to it as a lightener.

"A lot of people, they need more whitening to remove the pigmentation," says Lo, who works at the Emerald Health and Beauty Center. She points to a "skin lightening kit" from Babor, which she says is milder than other lighteners.

Like Phuong, Lo says her products don't aim to whiten someone's overall skin tone and don't have the power to do so anyway. She lists off a string of ingredients which include vitamin C and arbutin, a plant extract reported to have mild skin lightening properties.

Standing next to a makeshift sign that reads "Your beauty in our hands," Lo says she recommends her products to women of all ethnicities, whether they're trying to disguise a freckle or fade a so-called imperfection.

Brightening products lining shelves at Holt Renfrew, Sephora and other retailers vow to address similar desires. But in North America, cosmetics companies have been quick to distance themselves from contentious "lightening" products coveted in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. A promotional photo for Estee Lauder's "Idealist" Illuminator features three women -- black, white and Asian respectively – standing cheek to cheek. Their American website says the serum is "proven effective for all ethnicities."

'Flavours of the same thing'

Ingredients in skin brighteners, whether they're at a small ethnic retailer or in a large department store, are so varied that it's become difficult to define what this type of product supposed to do. Some purport to whiten; others stay away from this claim.

There's only one consistent detail linking the contentious products with the seemingly more innocuous ones: they are all marketing brighter skin. This alone carries an uneasy subtext for Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."

"I think it's all flavours of the same thing: telling women our skin needs to look different than it does in order to be beautiful," she says.

Products that claim to lighten skin have a heavy history in places such as India or Japan where many have bought into the notion of bihaku, the idea that pale, white skin is beautiful. Many continue to seek out creams with risky ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone, which lightens skin by decreasing the production of melanin pigments.

Malkan takes umbrage with the idea that skin tone or colour can be altered with any cosmetic product. Whether it's called a brightener or a lightener, she says that unlike a medical procedure, a cosmetic can only temporarily change skin tone.

"At best, it's just a marketing gimmick," she says. "At worst, I think it's sending racist messages about what it means to be beautiful."

She asserts that cosmetics companies are trying to further capitalize on the success of lightening products by coming out with items in North America that are marketed under similar buzz words. Non-descript adjectives such as "bright," "radiant" or "luminous" are pleasant to the ear but don't make any specific promises.

"Women are being lied to about what these products are and can do," says Malkan.

Health Canada considers any product that claims to whiten, bleach or lighten to be a drug or natural health product. Conversely, items that claim to brighten or illuminate are regulated as cosmetics. This means considerable differences in the way the products are approved before they hit the market.

Cosmetics need to abide by a hotlist of prohibited ingredients and can't contain "any substance that may injure the health of the user." Drugs and natural health products, however, are examined more rigorously -- reviewed for safety, efficacy and quality.

Actual effect ‘not heavy-hitting'

Speaking on the phone from New York, Gavenas attributes the apparent surge of luxury brightening products in North America to a number of factors. These include:

  • The influence of trendsetters bringing these items back from Asia
  • Advances in cosmetic formulations
  • A "feel good" shift in the way companies are marketing make up.

Back in the early 1990s, she recalls asking several international cosmetics companies which products they sold overseas that they weren't selling to Western consumers.

"They said in North America you can't really sell a ‘lightening' product but they were going gangbusters with them in the Asian market in places like Japan, China and Southeast Asia," says Gavenas, a former editor at Glamour, In Style and Mirabella.

More than a decade later "they found a way to launch it into the American market, or North American market," she says. That method? Eliminate words that reference controversial ideals and instead market an all-in-one, economical beauty product that purports to do everything but pick up your laundry.

Still, Gavenas says to fulfill the "radiant" promises these new luxury brighteners are making there must be some sort of mild bleaching agent in the formula. Sometimes it's kojic acid, which according to the Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, can inhibit melanin production. Other products contain anything from mulberry extract to glycolic acid.

"The actual effect of this is going to be not heavy-hitting, no one is going to significantly change skin tone over this," she says. "The products themselves are innocuous."

For her part, Gavenas says she doesn't view brightening products in the same embattled vein as Malkan. She doesn't think the word "bright" is specifically appealing to race, but a vague, non-descript beauty ideal.

In other words: a brightener is whatever we want it to be.

"It's a nice, bright positive word that could mean absolutely anything. From the standpoint of beauty marketing, that makes it practically ideal right?"