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Companies "need to ban" skin-lightening creams, activist says

When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America, becoming the first Indian Miss America, not everyone was celebrating her barrier-breaking win. In India, where Davuluri's family emigrated from, her complexion was being dissected.

"The morning after I won Miss America and I woke up to an Indian headline that said: 'Is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?'" Davuluri told CBS News foreign correspondent Imtiaz Tyab.

Criticism of her darker skin tone is part of an ugly concept known as "colorism," she said. "The idea that fair skin is better than darker skin, the idea that white is considered more elite than darker skin complexions, and that inherently in itself is racism."

Ads shown across Africa, Asia and the Middle East help fuel a demand for skin-lightening products like White Perfect, White Glow and White Beauty.

The creams contain chemical agents that can reduce melanin content. Some, if used incorrectly, can damage the skin.

Major corporations like L'Oreal, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson are all part of the industry which is reportedly worth over $8 billion a year.

"My grandmother used to use it. And so my mom saw it, saw it normalized and just saw it was the thing to do," said Stephanie Yeboah, a British Ghanaian author.

Yeboah started using skin whitening creams at 14 years old.

"I started lightening my skin because I thought, well, if I can alleviate one of the things that makes me have no privilege, which was my skin color, I thought that I could do a bit better in life," she said. 

The beauty industry is experiencing a racial reckoning following Black Lives Matter protests. Cosmetics giants are being accused of hypocrisy for claiming to stand against racism, while at the same time promoting whiteness.

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said it will no longer sell two skin-lightening lotions. L'Oreal said it's removing the words "white," "fair," and "light" from its skin products.

Nivea's parent company followed, removing "whitening" and "fair" from products and marketing. Unilever is renaming it's hugely popular Fair & Lovely cream to Glow & Lovely.

But is renaming products enough?

"They need to ban the products," Yeboah said. "They don't need to rename it. I mean, I don't see what renaming is going to do when the intended effect of the product is still the same. The person is still going to be lighter."

Yeboah said she's come a long way from hating her skin to loving it, something that's led her to body-positivity activism as a social media influencer.

Asked what she wants to say to girls today, she said, "I would say, first and foremost, you are beautiful. Your skin is beautiful. Your skin tells such a beautiful deep story from your ancestors back in Africa to now. There's such a huge history there that you have coated around you. You should be proud of that."

Both Davuluri and Yeboah say corporations need to get rid of skin-lightening products altogether and that communities of color must also let go of these deeply held beliefs about beauty, so that everyone can love their skin, no matter the shade. 

L'Oreal did not immediately return CBS News' request for comment. Read the full statements from the other companies below. 

Beiersdorf (parent company of Nivea)

"As a company whose products are cherished by millions of consumers worldwide, Beiersdorf celebrates and promotes diversity. It is our ambition to serve consumers and help them feel good in their own skin. We aim to meet the very different needs and wishes of our consumers around the globe with safe, trusted products and address them in a positive, inclusive way.

"Acknowledging the changing perceptions and expectations of our consumers worldwide, we have started an in-depth review process to determine recent implications for our product offering and marketing approach. Resulting from this review, we will cease use of labels such as 'whitening' or 'fair' in product descriptions and marketing communication, thereby positively supporting and reflecting change."

Unilever

"Our recent announcement to remove all references to 'fair/fairness', 'white/whitening', and 'light/lightening' from our products' packs and communication is part of an ongoing evolution of our skin care portfolio. In addition to using the brand name Glow & Lovely, which better reflects the products' benefits, we will also continue to evolve the advertising to feature women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty around the world. We are fully committed to caring for and celebrating all skin tones, and we are translating this belief into action with our future skin care innovations, products and brand ranges and communications. The decision to change the language we use in our branding and communication is not the end destination."

Johnson & Johnson 

"Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Dark Spot Reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone. This was never our intention – healthy skin is beautiful skin. 

"We've made the business decision to no longer sell the NEUTROGENA® Fine Fairness product line (which was only sold in Asia and the Middle East) and Clean & Clear Fairness (which was only in India). We had already planned to discontinue NEUTROGENA® Fine Fairness later this year, and replace it in several markets with our newest line NEUTROGENA® Bright Boost – which uses resurfacing ingredients like Neoglucosamine® to boost the skin's natural renewal process for brighter, more-even skin tone.

"These products made up a very small part of our global skin health product portfolio – neither sold in the U.S. – and represent less than 1% of our 2019 global beauty sales."

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