When Chandana Hiran was a child, she was urged to lighten her skin. Today the Indian student is leading a campaign against whitening creams and achieved her first victory when cosmetics giant Unilever dropped the word "fair" from its popular Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream. L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson announced similar initiatives.

"They have been thriving on selling insecurities to women," 22-year-old Hiran, who launched an online petition against Fair & Lovely, told AFP. "The narrative is that if you are dark-skinned, you cannot achieve anything in life. So being a dark-skinned girl I’ve always felt that maybe... I need to be fair."

Beauty giants have long profited from the society’s bias to sale whitening products, by advertising the message that beauty, success and love are linked to pale-skins. Unilever made $500 million from Fair & Lovely sales in India last year, according to Bloomberg.

Now, after mounting outrage sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests in Western cities, companies like Unilever say they "want to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty". But campaigners warn their fight has just begun and that, without greater efforts to counter entrenched bias against darker skin, the rebranding remains superficial.

Deeply rooted bias

Colourism - prejudice against darker skin tones - in India is pervasive. While British colonialism helped fuel colourism, the bias is deeply rooted in India’s ancient caste hierarchies, experts say. "The assumption is the higher castes are fairer than the lower castes," sociologist Suparna Kar of Bangalore’s Christ University told AFP.

As a result, many associate pale skin with wealth and beauty - a prejudice bolstered by Bollywood films which rarely make darker-complexioned women the star and frequently portray successful city-dwellers as fair-skinned. Actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, long vocal about colourism, told AFP: "When I have been cast in urban roles, a make-up artist would come and tell me that it’s an ’upmarket’ role, so ’should I make the skin tone two shades lighter?’"

Many Indian women start using whitening products as children. Seema, a 29-year-old domestic worker in New Delhi, has used Fair & Lovely since she was 14. Most of her female relatives use it - including her 12-year-old daughter. "When I look at the fairness-cream commercials it looks like a good product... they show that when people become fairer, they get jobs, they get proposals for marriage," she told AFP.

Indeed, newspaper adverts for arranged marriages regularly call for brides with "milky white" complexions.

Southeast Asia too

Beyond India, the obsession is also widespread in Southeast Asia. "Having a whiter skin is seen as... part of what is euphemistically called (a) ’pleasing personality’," University of the Philippines’ medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco told AFP.

Such prejudices have exposed generations to self-loathing and low self-esteem, experts say. Furthermore, some adulterated products pose significant health risks: they may contain hazardous levels of mercury or hydroquinone. In Indonesia, the pursuit of "white skin" has led to the sale of toxic, unregulated products, prompting a government crackdown.

But activists say it will take time to alter such ingrained biases. In India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, whitening products make up about half the skincare market.

But change is coming, and several campaigners believe future generations will see the world - and themselves - differently.