A pigment of scientific imagination

Skin deep research

In its first challenge for an innovation competition, the department has called for Indian scientists to develop “innovative” skin-whitening technology. The DST, for its Challenge-of-the-Month competition in partnership with Procter & Gamble, has asked scientists to develop a skin-whitening technology better than the currently used hydroquinone.

“Challenge yourself to look for innovative whitening technology or approach that could reduce facial hyperpigmented spot and lighten skin tone equivalent or better than hydroquinone,” says the note on the DST website.

Why better than hydroquinone? The note on the DST website explains: “..It (hydroquinone) induces skin irritation and sometime hypo-pigmentation, thus not practical for cosmetics/quasi drug usage. It is also banned (or may be banned) to use for cosmetics in several countries.” Unlike in India, hydroquinone is banned by the European Union for use in skin-whitening products.

The promotion of skin whitening research by a government department has raised questions in a country that has been accused of being obsessed with fair skin.
Brinda Karat, Rajya Sabha MP and Vice-President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, expressed shock at the proposal.

“This is absolutely appalling. By calling for young scientists to work on skin whitening, it exposes the retrograde mentality of our institutions,” she told Deccan Herald. “Clearly, public good is being subordinated to corporate interest,” she added, saying she would take up the matter with the ministry. Many others have also questioned why the DST could not come up with a better challenge.

Prof R Ramaswamy of  Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is also a member of the panel on Women in Science, said the DST initiative was disappointing. “This does not seem to be a significant medical problem. They should have chosen a much bigger challenge,” he says. When Deccan Herald contacted Procter & Gamble officials, they said it was an initiative of its US-based parent company and they had no comment to offer.

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