Antiracism Push Prompts Rethink of Asia's 'Beautiful White' Creams
Global skin-care companies are split over a term commonly used on Asian antiblemish creams that means "beautiful white," with Unilever PLC erasing it from products while Johnson & Johnson says it isn't offensive.
The debate over the term, which is widely known among women across East Asia, reflects the fallout of last year's antiracism protests.
The demonstrations prompted many companies to reconsider product names and images seen as having origins in racist imagery, like the Aunt Jemima pancake brand that was retired by PepsiCo Inc.
Deciding what words are acceptable can be more difficult when multiple languages and cultures are involved.
The word that has divided global companies consists of two Chinese characters that are also used in writing Japanese -- the first meaning "beautiful" and the second "white." In Japanese, the two together are pronounced "bihaku." The characters or the word bihaku in English letters appear on many skin creams sold in Asia, sometimes accompanied by English words such as "whitening" or "white aura."
Bihaku products accounted for more than $2 billion in sales in Japan in the year ended March 2021, according to an estimate by TPC Marketing Research Corp. The products are also sold in Greater China, South Korea and Southeast Asia.
Amina Mire, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, said Japanese products are influential across Asia.
"This non-Caucasian but uniquely white Japanese skin becomes a paradigm for others in Asia to emulate. It's a different kind of ideal," said Prof. Mire, one that is seen as sensitive to Asian skin needs but "it is still white and glowing."
Unilever told The Wall Street Journal that it is removing "bihaku" and "white" from products it sells in Japan under the brand name Pond's as part of a global policy to eliminate words that suggest fairer skin is better.
The changes are beginning this month, although the company said some products already in distribution channels may still contain the discontinued words.
Last year Unilever said it would rename its South Asia-focused Fair & Lovely brand, one of its top-selling personal-care lines, in response to criticism. It is now called Glow & Lovely and the company's marketing emphasizes that it "has never been, and is not, a skin bleaching cream."
"We are fully committed to having a global portfolio of skin care brands that is inclusive and cares for all skin tones," the company said in an emailed statement last month.
Unilever said white and similar words "suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don't think is right."
Johnson & Johnson and L'Oréal SA's Lancôme, by contrast, said they were keeping bihaku on their products. They said they didn't think consumers interpreted "beautiful white" to mean that the creams would make the skin whiter.
Bihaku products are sold by Japanese brand Dr. Ci:Labo, which was acquired by J&J in 2019.
"As a brand founded by a dermatologist, Dr. Ci:Labo created the Bihaku range for those looking to prevent uneven skin tone and dullness concerns," a J&J spokesman said.
Lancôme has a "Bihaku Care" line that offers products labeled "Absolue White Aura," using a French version of the word "absolute."
A spokeswoman said the characters in bihaku were associated with "translucence and inner radiance," not a lightening of skin tone.
The Japanese preference for fair skin has its origins in aristocratic culture from hundreds of years ago, said Kiriu Minashita, a professor of sociology at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.
Books about ideal skin promoted the idea, also found in Europe, that lighter skin was a mark of aristocratic status because the privileged didn't engage in prolonged outdoor labor, she said.
Kao Corp., a major Japanese cosmetics maker known for skin care brands like Bioré and Jergens, said it was phasing out the bihaku term over the next few years, including on products in Japan.
This year it started selling a new skin serum with a label that eliminates the "beautiful white" language used in similar earlier products.
The label on the new product, which costs $90 for 40 milliliters, says that it has a brightening effect.
In marketing, Kao avoids words related to skin tone or color, saying the serum's purpose is to moisturize the skin and give it a glowing look.
"We believe that beauty exists within each person, regardless of race, age, gender or skin type," Kao executive Yoshihiro Murakami said. "It has become difficult to express such a message with the word 'bihaku,' which could give the impression that only white skin is beautiful."
Japan's Kosé Corp., with brands like Jill Stuart and high-end Decorté, replaced the word "whitening" with "brightening" on products sold in the U.S. and Europe, a move that predated the antiracism protests last year, a spokesman said.
However, it is keeping bihaku on products sold in Japan.
Shiseido Co. likewise said it plans to stop using "white" in the West but is sticking with bihaku in Asia.
Both Japanese companies said they didn't intend to suggest that whiter skin is superior and their bihaku products were meant to prevent blemishes.
Companies that sell bihaku products in Asia observed that the category is recognized by Japan's cosmetic-industry group and by government regulators who entrust the group with setting marketing guidelines.
The industry group authorizes the words bihaku and whitening on labels so long as the products don't claim to make the skin whiter or remove existing brown spots.