Dangerous Beauty: Thailand’s Women Want White Skin At Any Price

thailand woman

Many women in Thailand dream of whiter skin. They think white skin means not only beauty, but also success – professional and romantic.

Cosmetic companies advertise skin-lighteners on television and billboards. But some of these products are not only expensive – they are also dangerous. They attack the skin to make it lighter. Seeking a share of the market are not only major companies, but also countless generic producers who mix any kind of ingredients together and then sell them cheap. But thrift can turn out to be very short-sighted for the clients, who are often left with scathed faces and ruined lives as a result.


Khun Panya wanted to be beautiful – and that meant having white skin. To fulfil her dream she applied lightening creams, on her face, throat and arms. But the aggressive cosmetics ruined her skin and disfigured her face. She has undergone lengthy medical treatment, but so far nothing has helped. And her doctors don’t give her much hope. This is the cream that was her undoing.”It’s so dreadful,” says Khun Panya. “I no longer have the nerve to go out. I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I have no self-confidence anymore. I hope some doctor somewhere will give me an ointment that helps. Why on earth did I use that cream? Why?”

Khun Panya comes from Rayong, a small town about a two-hour drive from Bangkok. Because she could not afford the expensive creams made by established cosmetics manufacturers, she bought her product at one of the local open-air markets, where, in addition to street food, clothing and household articles, cosmetics are also on sale. They are no-name Thai products. They are cheap and they all promise to lighten skin. Most of the preparations are banned. The information on the packaging is just as fake as what is inside, a fact most sellers seem blissfully unaware of.

“I used the cream on my face every day,” Khun Panya describes. “After a week my skin was very smooth and soft. Then it peeled off like a layer of dirt – and my face was whiter. At the end of the first month I was still satisfied.” She used to be a singer in a club. She lost the job when she lost her looks. Now she and her friend live on what they earn from occasional work, and what their grown children can afford to give them. Originally, she expected fairer skin to earn her more money. “It’s just better to be white, much better than being dark. People look at you differently if you’re white. People whose work doesn’t bring them into the public eye might think otherwise. But as a singer, if you’re light-skinned, audiences like you better.”

Skin lightening products are very popular in Asia, because fair skin is considered to be elegant and desirable – with all the consequences that entails. Niwat Polnikorn knows these quite well. He works as dermatologist at the Thai Society of Cosmetics Dermatology and Surgery: “We often treat skin damage like Khun Panya’s. Many people who come to us have skin that’s become infected, irritated and damaged from using these dangerous lightening creams. Nowadays they make up the majority of our cases.”

Television commercials in Thailand support this irrational fashion. The message on Thai television is that only women with fair skin are successful. Most Thais believe that and buy the skin creams. Dermatologists warn that the long-term effects of whitening ingredients have not been adequately researched – and that includes those in brand-name products. Despite that, even educated middle class women fall prey to the craze for white skin. A pedestrian explains: “It just looks better. Whatever you do, white is more beautiful. Dark-skinned women are ugly – fair ones always look pretty.” And another girl assumes: “Perhaps the trend for lightening skin comes from Korea or Japan. But I also think white just looks healther, more radiant – prettier.” “Thailand is a hot country, explains a third woman. “Most Thais have dark skin – that’s why they want to be fairer, like foreigners from the west.”

In health spas and cosmetic salons in Bangkok’s more affluent districts, big money is spend on beauty treatments. These are not ready-made creams, and they are certainly not cheap. Most salon owners prefer natural products and mix their creams themselves. But here, too, it’s all about whiteness. Chawanrat Callan, Cosmetician at a spa, explains: “I want to provide a product that makes the skin so fair that it embodies our idea of beauty. All the media are full of light-skinned people. There are many actors, for instance, who have healthy white skin, and that’s how I want to look as well.”

Commercials reflect the admiration and social recognition for the women with whiter skin. It’s a deeply racist attitude that is hardly ever called into question in Asia. In the shops, there is scarcely any cream that does not contain lighteners. “The supermarkets are full of such products”, Dr. Polnikorn says. “Many are very expensive. Those who can’t afford them buy them on the black market. And that can’t be controlled. No sooner is a product banned than it reappears under a new name.” The authorities have already banned more than fifty products. Those who make them are seldom caught.

For Khun Panya, the pursuit has come too late. But to prevent others from suffering the same fate, she has dared to go public. Education is sorely needed, especially in rural areas of Thailand, where most people have little idea of how dangerous these creams can be. “Many women saw me on television and phoned in immediately,” she remembers. Because they had the same symptoms I had: redness and itching. I told them: ‘stop using those creams. And do it soon. Just look at me.'” Despite that, Khun Panya still thinks white skin is more beautiful. She just thinks she chose the wrong way to get it.(dw-world.de)