You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Top Stories

Asia is obsessed with skin whitening - but the backlash is beginning

Inkstone logo Inkstone 10/2/2019
© Shutterstock

Growing up in Canada, Holly Ngan (not her real name) loved climbing trees, riding bikes and playing outdoors.

Being in the sun was never an issue for Ngan, who says she has always naturally been tanned.

"I have never been called fair in my life," she says.

Her awareness of skin color changed drastically when she turned 10 and traveled to Hong Kong with her family to visit relatives over their summer holiday.

One afternoon, Ngan's cousin took her on a boat trip. It was a sweltering hot day, the small cabin and deck of the boat were heating up, and yet she noticed most of the women stayed on board instead of cooling off in the sea.

"All the girls were covered up," recalls Ngan, noting their long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats and oversized sunglasses. "My older cousin kept telling me how good and effective her sunscreen was. That was when I realized how important having pale skin was in Chinese culture."

She says she returned to Canada a lot more conscious about her tanned complexion.

Ngan, who is now 27, has returned to Asia several times over the last few years, traveling through countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Japan and China. She noticed how little had changed, and that pale skin was still the dominant beauty norm.

"When I went to China last fall, women were all covered up with sleeves and holding parasols while they hiked in the mountains," Ngan says. "In South Korea, I saw so many whitening skincare products."

In many countries across Asia, advertisements and billboards feature light-skinned models touting products such as whitening creams, tablets, sunscreens and other related products.

It's a big business. The global skin-whitening market was valued at $4.8 billion in 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts, and is anticipated to reach $8.9 billion by 2027, with Asian countries making up a major segment.

Euromonitor valued China's anti-aging skin-whitening market at $618.8 billion in 2014, while Thailand's and Taiwan's came in at $432.2 billion and $334 million that year.

A World Health Organization survey found that nearly 40% of women polled in nations including China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea said they regularly used whitening products. In India, 60% of the skincare market consisted of whitening products.

Having white skin isn't only about being Western. In Asia, there is a deeply rooted cultural notion that associates dark skin with poverty and working in the fields, whereas pale skin reflects a more comfortable life out of the sun and, therefore, a higher socioeconomic status.

In the Philippines, most people have tanned or darker skin, yet society favors those with fairer skin.

"At supermarkets, there are entire aisles dedicated to whitening products," says Marvie Dela Torre, a university student in her 20s who lives in Quezon City in the Philippines. "We've already accepted being white is equivalent to being beautiful."

Kosum Omphornuwat, a gender and sexuality studies lecturer at Thailand's Thammasat University, says: "Achieving white skin seems for some women to be a key to open a door of opportunity to achieve the highest purpose of their lives: acceptance, fame, men, money or class mobility."

Today, the notion of becoming paler continues to be one of Asia's most prolific, if not oppressive ideals.

But do whitening products even work?

Dela Torre says her sister often uses whitening lotions, but she herself does not like them. "There are some products that actually work if you use them for a long time, like whitening lotions that explicitly say that it'll work if you use them for a month," she says.

But the results may not be perfect. "It makes your skin look white, but it doesn't look natural at all," Dela Torre says. "Some people have even experienced dangerous side effects, permanently damaging their skin."

Researchers have found quite a few potential health risks with some of these products. A 2017 report by research group Frontiers in Public Health found that whitening products tested in India contained "highly active and potentially dangerous agents" such as hydroquinone, mercury, and bleaching chemicals including hydrogen peroxide. More than half of the products tested also contained steroids harmful for skin.

In Malaysia, one of the nation's best-known self-made millionaires, Hasmiza Othman, made her fortune peddling whitening cosmetics labeled "Qu Puteh" - or "I am white" - under her Vida Beauty line.

But she came under fire when some of her whitening beauty products were banned by the Bruneian and Malaysian health ministries for containing harmful levels of mercury and hydroquinone, a pharmaceutical product which inhibits melanin formation and increases the risk of skin cancer if used excessively.

However, health risks such as these have not daunted Malaysians who are always keen to "brighten" - a popular euphemism for whiten - their skin.

While the yearning for whiter skin remains strong, there has been some pushback too. A 2017 ad by health care and beauty chain Watsons in Malaysia featured a 15-minute short film, in which a merchant falls in love with a mysterious woman's beautiful singing voice, only to be taken aback by her dark skin. In the climax, she washes off the dark make-up, and - suddenly fair-skinned - marries the man.

The advertisement shocked Malaysians, with many criticizing the use of blackface and the racially charged message of the film.

In recent years, other advertising campaigns have attracted a backlash for promoting the whiter-is-better beauty ideal.

In 2016, Thai company Seoul Secret advertised skin-lightening tablets with the slogan "White makes you win," prompting a backlash that forced the company to apologize and abandon the campaign.

Elsewhere, other grassroots movements are spreading the backlash against the ideal of whiteness.

In the Philippines, the viral social media campaign #magandangmorenx - or "beautiful brown skin" - headed by half-Filipina, half-black actress Asia Jackson saw young Filipina women take to Twitter calling for an end to colorism, and demanding more diversity in local media.

In Malaysia, the burgeoning #UnfairIsLovely movement has also taken root, pushing for Malaysian women to embrace their natural darker tones.

Experts say change has been slow, but these fledgling movements have helped launch more discussion of the topic.

"As a society we have to understand our past and how it affects our present. The colonial and imperial past affected how we think about ourselves now," says Brenda Alegre, a women's studies lecturer at Hong Kong University.

She adds that the discussion in Asia is related to status and social structure, but society needs to "challenge these expectations and experiences in media and education."

Additional reporting by Ana Salva.

This story originally appeared on Inkstone, a daily multimedia digest of China-focused news and features. Like what you see? Sign up for our newsletter, download our app, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

More from Inkstone

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon