Walk into a South Asian store anywhere in the world and chances are you’ll come across Fair & Lovely. This hugely popular skin lightening brand by Unilever has dominated the fairness cream market in South Asia and Africa since the 1970s. For those unfamiliar with the term, fairness creams are simply skin lightening products which often contain sunscreen ingredients. Unlike BB creams, they offer no coverage and are incredibly affordable (here in Canada, you can get one for $4.00 a pop).
Fair & Lovely offers several variations of their fairness creams (including a men’s line), with the most popular one being the Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream. This particular product is the brand’s best-selling and ‘most advanced’ formula – promising to make skin fairer and healthier-looking in just 4 weeks. But, how true are these claims? Is the popularity warranted? What’s in the formula and how does it work? Is it safe?
These are the questions that I will answer in this post. Additionally, as I have used the Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream, I will add my personal thoughts on its effectiveness and overall performance on the skin.
The principle skin lightening ingredients in the Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream are niacinamide (vitamin B3) and sodium ascorbyl phosphate (very stable, water soluble vitamin C derivative). Both of these ingredients are effective in suppressing melanin formation at certain concentrations. Niacinamide lightens skin by inhibiting transfer of melanosomes to keratinocytes (blocking the accumulation of melanin in the epidermis, which contributes to skin darkening) at concentrations of 2% and above. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate inhibits tyrosinase at concentrations of 1.5% and above. Furthermore, these two ingredients benefit the skin in multiple ways such as boosting collagen production, alleviating acne, improving and reversing the visible signs of aging, and providing photo protection.
Unfortunately, the concentrations of these two actives are not provided by Fair & Lovely on the package or website. I contacted them via e-mail for this information but have yet to receive a reply. Suffice it to say, the niacinamide concentration is definitely greater than the sodium ascorbyl phosphate, as it appears higher up on the ingredient list.
There is some concern over the presence of niacinamide and vitamin C in the same formulation, as this combination has the potential to lead to skin irritation due to conflicting pH levels. Fortunately, this isn’t much of an issue with Fair & Lovely, since it utilizes sodium ascorbyl phosphate as opposed to L-ascorbic acid. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate has an optimal pH range of 6 to 6.5 while niacinamide has an optimal pH range is 5 to 7, so the risk of conversion into nictonic acid (which causes irritation and flushing) in this formulation is low.
Other key ingredients include stearic acid, vitamin E, as well as titanium dioxide, octinoxate, and avobenzone for UV protection. Stearic acid and the white pigment titanium dioxide are essential ingredients as they provide an instant skin brightening effect – contributing to the dramatic skin fairness claims. The combination of avobenzone with octinoxate is problematic, since the latter hastens the breakdown of the avobenzone, particularly in the presence of UV light. Furthermore, the concentration of the titanium dixoide and the chemical UV filters octinoxate and avobenzone are not mentioned, therefore it’s best to assume that the sun protection component of the product is extremely minimal at best and shouldn’t be relied on solely for adequate UV protection.
The inactive ingredients are a mix of emollients, humectants, thickening agents, parabens, and perfume. A few potentially comedogenic ingredients round out the base, such as the synthetic oil and thickening agent, isopropyl myristate (which scores a 5 on the comedogenic scale at CosDNA) and cetyl alcohol. As with all ingredients, every individual responds differently, however, I can say with certainty that isopropyl myristate clogs my pores and is an ingredient I actively avoid when purchasing products! It’s definitely an ingredient to be wary of if you’re acne-prone.
The Fair & Lovey Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream comes in a squeeze tip tube with a twist off cap. The product itself is a thick, white cream that comes out like toothpaste. When applied to the skin, it feels thick and heavy. Its finish is somewhat tacky – leaving behind a slightly creamy and silicone-y feel. Once blended in, however, its look is pretty discreet. It also contains a floral fragrance that is subtle yet lingers all day.
I used the product for a period of 4 weeks before calling it quits, as I developed some acne along the sides of my face after only a few days of using it. I’m quite surprised I stuck it out for 30 days, but I wanted to give it a fair shot. Unfortunately my skin was pretty wrecked by the end of this trial!
In terms of actually making my skin more fair, I can honestly say that I noticed my skin looking brighter overall after the first week. To determine this accurately, I made sure to examine my skin after I removed the product off my face, to avoid conflating the brightening I was seeing with the titanium dioxide effect. I should note that the brightening effect I get from this fairness cream is identical to that of other products containing niacinamide. Apparently, this ingredient works very well on my skin. Having said this, the brightening effect from the Fair & Lovely isn’t enough to compensate for the tacky texture and the acne I developed from using it. There are far more potent and better formulated niacinamide based product in the market that can do the exact same thing, without compromising the look and feel of my skin!
Concerns over safety
Fair & Lovey states on their official website and on the product packaging that their products are free of bleach and harmful ingredients. And this is true for the Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream, as its ingredient list is pretty darn innocuous. However, upon further researching, I stumbled upon an independent study conducted in 2005 which revealed that Fair & Lovely fairness cream (do not know which particular variation was studied since the name wasn’t listed) contains a small amount of mercury. To observe the effects of its use, researchers applied the fairness cream to mice for one month. The results showed changes in the brains, livers, and kidneys of the mice, consistent with mercury-induced toxicity, as well as significant reductions in the weight of the mice.
As alarming as this study is, it’s important to realize that one, this study was conducted on rats and not humans, and two, that Fair & Lovely (at least the products regulated in the Indian market) adheres to strict guidelines imposed by the Drugs & Cosmetics Act in India, which states that ALL ingredients must be listed on the product packaging.
Although the implications of this study are worrisome, I believe the current roster of Fair & Lovely products are safe – specifically the ones regulated and exported from India, since they are required to abide by strict policies set in place by the Indian government. It’s highly advisable to avoid purchasing Fair & Lovely products from markets other than India, as they may be tainted with harmful substances.
Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Fairness Cream contains vitamins and antioxidants that can brighten skin, but its formulation is flawed with problematic inactive ingredients (isopropyl myristate) and active ingredient combinations (i.e. octinoxate + avobenzone), which can potentially compromise the skin in the form of acne or irritation. Concerns over the safety of Fair & Lovely should not be ignored but instead seen as a reminder to shop for skin lightening products from well-regulated markets. Those looking to brighten skin effectively should look beyond Fair & Lovely to other products in the international market which contain more potent and advanced ingredients and formulations that are suitable for acne-prone skin types.