A Vision of Pale Beauty Carries Risks for Asia's Women
MAKHAM KHU, Thailand — Neighbors gawk and children yell, “Ghost!” The manager of the restaurant where Panya Boonchun worked simply told her she was fired.
The cream that she applied to her face and neck was supposed to transform her into a white-skinned beauty, the kind she saw in women’s magazines and on television.
But the illegally produced lotion she bought in a store near this village in southeastern Thailand turned her skin into a patchwork of albino pink and dark brown. Doctors say her condition may be irreversible.
“I never look in the mirror anymore,” she said, sobbing during an interview.
Whiter skin is being aggressively marketed across Asia, with vast selections of skin-whitening creams on supermarket and pharmacy shelves testament to an industry that has flourished over the past decade. In Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, 4 of every 10 women use a whitening cream, a survey by Synovate, a market research company, found.
The skin-whitening craze is not just for the face. It includes creams that whiten darker patches of skin in armpits and “pink nipple” lotions that bleach away brown pigment.
And while many if not most whitening creams are safe, doctors, consumer groups and government officials are reporting dangerous consequences of the trend. Some involve women who use blemish creams in large, harmful amounts; inexpensive black-market products with powerful but illegal bleaching agents are selling briskly, particularly in the poorer parts of South and Southeast Asia.
“I have a lot of complaints — with photographs — which show that before the cream is used the face is fine and then after it looks like it’s been roasted in the oven,” said Darshan Singh, the manager for Malaysia’s National Consumer Complaints Center, a nonprofit group.
Skin-whitening products work in various ways. Some contain acids that remove old skin to reveal newer, lighter skin underneath. Others inhibit melanin, like those with mulberry extract, licorice extract, kojic acid, arbutin and hydroquinone, an ingredient in prescription creams for blemishes as well as in photo processing materials.
Some of the most effective agents are also risky — and are often the least expensive, like mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone, which in Thailand sells for about $20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), compared with highly concentrated licorice extract, which sells for about $20,000 per kilogram.
Hydroquinone has been shown to cause leukemia in mice and other animals. The European Union banned it from cosmetics in 2001, but it shows up in bootleg creams in the developing world. It is sold in the United States as an over-the-counter drug, but with a concentration of hydroquinone not exceeding 2 percent.
Sociologists have long debated why Asians, who are divided by everything from language to religion to ethnicity, share a deeply held cultural preference for lighter skin. One commonly repeated rationale is that a lighter complexion is associated with wealth and higher education levels because those from lower social classes, laborers and farmers, are more exposed to the sun.
Another theory is that the waves of lighter-skinned conquerors, the Moguls from Central Asia and the colonizers from Europe, reset the standard for attractiveness.
Films and advertising also clearly have a role. The success of South Korean soap operas across the region has made their lighter-skinned stars emblems of Asian beauty.
Nithiwadi Phuchareuyot, a doctor at a skin clinic in Bangkok who dispenses products and treatments to lighten skin, said: “Every Thai girl thinks that if she has white skin the money will come and the men will come. The movie stars are all white-skinned, and everyone wants to look like a superstar.”
In Thailand, as in other countries in the region, the stigma of darker skin is reflected in language. One common insult is tua dam, or black body. Less common but more evocative is dam tap pet, or black like a duck’s liver.
Advertisements for skin-whitening products promote whiter skin as glowing and healthier. Olay has a product called White Radiance. L’Oréal markets products called White Perfect.
Last year, 62 new skin-whitening products were introduced in supermarkets or pharmacies across the Asia-Pacific region, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm, accelerating a trend that has seen an average of 56 new products introduced annually over the past four years.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has published a list of 70 illegal whitening creams. Indonesian officials have identified more than 50 banned cosmetics.
Small groups of people in Asia seem to prefer tanned skin. In Japan, young women commonly referred to as Shibuya girls, after the Tokyo neighborhood they favor, have been regular patrons of tanning salons for a decade. But they are an asterisk in Japanese society, and Asia over all.
“Everybody else basically wants white skin,” said Leeyong Soo, the international fashion coordinator at Vogue Nippon. “People might say to you when you come back from a holiday, ‘Oh you have a tan.’ But it’s not necessarily complimentary.”
Thada Piamphongsant, the president of the Thai Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Surgery, said he believed that about half of all Thai dermatologists prescribed creams with hydroquinone. He stopped prescribing it a decade ago when he noticed patients with redness and itching and with more serious side effects like ochronosis, the appearance of very dark patches of skin that are difficult to remove.
Some patients also develop leukoderma, where the skin loses the ability to produce pigment, resulting in patches of pink like those on Ms. Panya’s face and neck.
When she first began using the cream, which was packaged under the name 3 Days and cost the equivalent of $1, she said she was very happy with the results.
Her skin started itching, but she tolerated it because her complexion lightened considerably. She got bigger tips at the restaurant, where she sang folk songs, she said.
But when her face became blotchy two months later, her boss told her she could no longer sing at the restaurant because she was unsightly.
In April, she told her story on a Thai television program, breaking down as she described how she ruined her face and lost her job.
But first, the announcer ran through a list of the show’s sponsors, including a cream called White Beauty. “Use this cream,” the announcer said. “It gives you expert treatment.”