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The Ethics of Skin Whitening Products

Skin whitening products are used to lighten people’s skin color. Some of us white folks in the United States may be unaware of the widespread popularity of these products. According to a Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic, anywhere from 25-80% of women in African countries an about 40% in Asia regularly use these products. It is also used in the United States although this article did not provide data on the percentages. Globally skin whitening is an $8.6 billion industry.

There are a variety of ethical issues around these products. There are the cultural issues – where fairer skin often earns people better social outcomes, including marriage partners, education, and jobs. Skin whitening products that work best often contain toxic ingredients including steroids and mercury.

The Ethical Dilemma in Essentials of Marketing Chapter 4 offers a fictional situation where a product manager in a Southeast Asian country has to make decisions about how to market a skin care cream found to have whitening properties. Two recent CNN articles provide some great background you can use to foster in-class discussion of this issue: “Skin whitening: What is it, what are the risks, and who profits?” and “’I would whiten my skin no matter the cost.’” There are many ethical discussion pastures of this troubling practice, including marketing and business support for it.

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