A dangerous shade of pale

Asian skin-whitening trend brings health risks and illegal batches of bleaching creams.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
May 15, 2006 4:30PM (UTC)

In a grim irony, while white women continue hitting the tanning beds and slathering on bronzing lotions to give themselves a glow, Asian women are apparently eagerly scooping up creams that promise to turn them a paler shade of white. And according to the Sunday New York Times, it's a trend that is turning dangerous as some women overindulge in skin whiteners and buy risky black-market versions.

"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," Darshan Singh, manager for Malaysia's National Consumer Complaints Center, told Thomas Fuller of the Times. Fuller's piece also includes the story of a Thai woman who may have irreversibly harmed her skin by turning it "albino pink and dark brown" with a bootleg batch of bleaching cream.

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According to the Times, a recent survey found that skin whiteners are now so popular in some parts of Asia that four out of 10 women use them. Fuller attributes the Asian desire for lighter skin to an association with higher social status because "those from lower social classes, laborers and farmers, [have traditionally been] more exposed to the sun" and to the fact that European colonizers and Mongol conquerors "reset the standard for attractiveness." Apparently, pale South Korean soap opera stars are idolized across Asia.

But while old prejudices may feed the desire for paleness, now it is the beauty industry that is driving the bleaching trend. In recent years, some 62 new whitening products have been introduced in Asia. Among the most disturbing are products that whiten dark armpits and "pink nipple" potions that lighten brown breasts.

It's one thing to play around with powder or tanning lotions for cosmetic kicks. (Remember the popular pasty look of the goth fad?) But when did brown breasts become undesirable? I was hoping the invasion of the impossible beauty standard into our private parts was just an American neurosis. (See Broadsheet's posting on the trend of "vaginal rejeuvenation.")

But no. In the quest for a perfect pallor, women around the world are willing to court severe dermatological side effects, like the growth of dark patches of skin that are hard to remove or the ability to generate their own pigment, according to Thai dermatologists. And this summer, people on the other end of the skin color spectrum will risk skin cancer -- or, at the very least, turn freakishly orange from bad self-tanners -- in an effort to look brown. What other health risks are we willing to endure to look like someone we're not?


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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Asia Broadsheet Health Love And Sex

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