Skin lightening is not a new topic, both here in the U.S. and aboard. Unblemished fair skin has been sought after for centuries, holding classist and racist undertones that still persist today. In particular, Asian countries have a strong and expensive obsession with skin whitening. According to the International Trade Administration, Asian countries have one of the fastest growing global markets, importing a large portion of products from companies such as Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, Unilever, and Colgate-Palmolive. Skincare products, especially those advertised to protect skin from harsh sun and other environmental conditions, have jumped to represent up to 40% of sales in some markets (1). A 2004 study by Synovate AsiaBUS found that 4 in 10 women in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines used skin lighting products in that year (2). These products aren’t only for women; men are consuming beauty products at large rates, over 50%, opening up a whole new market (2). The Asian beauty business is estimated to be worth $80 billion, with skin lightening markets contributing well over $13 billion (2). Beauty manufactures are capitalizing on Asia’s desire for fair skin, but at what cost?
Skin lightening creams can contain harmful chemicals that are not always regulated by local governments. While the U.S. may have stricter laws on ingredients for personal care and beauty products, other countries may not. Not much is known though about the long term effects many skin lightening ingredients can cause, so further research is necessary to better understand the longitudinal effects. Dermatologists across Asia offer skin whitening creams, pills, injections, laser treatments, etc, at hefty prices and consumers desperate for lighter skin on a small budget may opt for illegal products containing toxic chemicals (3). In Thailand, a young women purchased an illegally produced skin whitening lotion in a store near her village that caused her skin to lose the ability to produce pigment in certain places, resulting in patch-like skin (4). A women in India spent around 200-300 rupees per month on a variety of skin whitening products only to have her skin lighten slightly but even she wonders if it was simply because she didn’t go out in the sun as often (5). Niacinamide, one of the most common ingredients found in skin lightening creams, inhibits the transfer of melanin from cells to the skins surface. Hydroquinone, a chemical that inhibits melanin production, is the most harmful, but sought after ingredient due to its results. While it does work in lightening skin, hydroquinone use cause exogenous ochronosis, a skin condition which results in bruise-like hyperpigmentation (2) Banned by the European Union in 2001, hydroquinone still shows up in bootleg products all over the world. (4). Products with less than 2% of hydroquinone are easily available though and are marketed to lighten dark spots. A quick online search produces hundreds of results, many from American brands that feature this ingredient. Health effects do not deter consumers though, as they still seek out more and more products every year.
In Asia, the desire to have fairer skin stems from deeply rooted racist ideals and social hierarches around skin color. Ideals of fair skin can be traced back to colonialism, where power was found in fair skin and wealth (5). Those who worked in the fields or were labors often spent long hours in the sun, putting them at the lower rung of society. This idea still holds true today, as many still believe they will be able to receive better jobs and attract more romantic partners if their skin was just a few shades lighter (3). Globalization also plays a large role in modern ideals of skin color. Whiter skin is being marketed all over Asia through models, actors, and music idols. It is not uncommon to see an advertisement featuring lighter skinned people, even here in the U.S. Most of the products promote “glowing” or more even skin tones, when in reality they are selling the idea that white is better. Product names such as “Fair and Lovely” or “Fair and Handsome” play into these ideas of skin color and status, and the excessive exposure to white skin idols exemplifies these claims. K-Pop idols in particular embody the fair skinned, attractive, and wealthy model and actors in Asian films and TV shows almost always have fair skin (6). It’s not hard to understand why the obsession with skin color is so prominent in a society where constant messages of power and privilege are thrown at you every day.
Skin whitening is not just popular in Asian countries. In the U.S., more and more celebrities, such as Sammy Sosa and Rihanna, have been accused of lightening their skin and the light skin vs. dark skin debate is still going strong. Skin color is one of the first things we notice about someone, allowing us to make judgments on about a person’s race or qualifications. In a country with deeply imbedded racist foundations, it’s inevitable that negative connotations of skin color are so prominent (7). Colorism, or prejudice against same-raced people based on skin color, has been seen in black communities here in America, but as we’ve already discussed, it can be seen globally (7). Research has shown that skin tone plays a big role in peoples everyday lives, from the workforce all the way to politics. This socialization that white is better starts within the family unit, as other family members police each other on all sorts of traits. Many family members know and understand that their children will have an easier time navigating through life is they have lighter skin or straighter hair, causing pressure on children to conform (3). Big brands, such as Dove and Nivea, have been slammed for their racially insensitive advertisements. Dove, a brand under Unilever (also the owner of Fair and Light and Fair and Handsome), came under fire in 2017 for a body cleanser ad featuring a black women pulling off her shirt to reveal a white woman. Nivea also came under fire in 2017, as Middle Eastern ads for their stain-free deodorant featured a women in a white t-shirt with the tagline ‘White is Purity.” According to the company, the ad was only meant for Middle Eastern consumers and not those in North America, but the damage was still done (8). As a senior executive for Japanese Cosmetics Company Shisedo once said in an interview “You can cover all your defective parts if you are white.” (3)
As someone who personally uses and buys Asian beauty products, I was astounded by how many products there are available for whitening skin. Being very fair, it’s sometimes hard to find makeup products in the U.S. that will match my skin tone. I have found that products specifically from South Korea and Japan offer shades of face makeup that match my fair skin perfectly, something I wasn’t expecting at first. To see how many products for whitening were available to American markets, I did a quick search on one of the sites I regularly buy from, yesstyle.com. The results were quite shocking. Using just the word “white” for my search, I found 654 face care products and 161 make up products that offered whitening benefits. With names like “Magic Snow,” “Milk White,” “Snow White,” “White Holic,” and “White Lady,” almost all offered to brighten and whiten dark complexions and spots. Many also have a high SPF and are under the $20 mark. Brands such as Shisedo are available in American retailers like Sephora or Macy’s and many American brands such as Dove, Nivea, and L’Oreal offer whitening or brightening products here and abroad. In America, brands market products as brightening instead of whitening, suggesting that users will have more ‘even” and healthy skin. In other countries though, the same products are clearly marketed for their whitening effects (8). Buzzfeed reporter Scaachi Koul reached out to Neutrogena in regards to a Fine Fairness Overnight Brightening Cream that is sold in Asian markets. Representatives from the company told Buzzfeed that they did not sell the product in American markets, but with some digging she found that it was available on Amazon (8). Although there are regulations on what ingredients brands can or cannot use in the U.S., other countries do not have this protection. This is concerning since access to products from overseas are so readily available, inexpensive, and in high demand in the U.S.
With trends such as “glass skin” and the 10 step Korean skincare routine, the world’s obsession with clear and flawless skin is not going away anytime soon. In a society where power and control is sought after by almost everyone, skin lightening is and has historically been a way for marginalized groups to gain social capital, even at a cost to their health. Women and men all over the world have sought fairer skin for centuries, a demand companies are banking in on. With continued growth in trade markets, products lighten skin tones are becoming more accessible to global consumers, increasing the racist and colonialist ideals that drive the need to be the fairest of them all.
To find out more:
(2) Tan, David. 2012. “Who’s The Fairest Of Them All?” Asian Scientist Magazine | Science, technology and medical news updates from Asia. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://www.asianscientist.com/2012/09/features/skin-whitening-products-asia-2012/).
(3) Martin, Phillip. n.d. “Skin Whitening Big Business in Asia.” Public Radio International. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-03-30/skin-whitening-big-business-asia).
(4) Fuller, Thomas. 2006. “A Vision of Pale Beauty Carries Risks for Asia’s Women.” The New York Times. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/world/asia/14thailand.html).
(5) Emmanuel, Kavithia. n.d. “Skin Lightening Is a Dangerous Obsession – and One Worth Billions.” The Wire. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://thewire.in/business/skin-lightening-industry).
(6) Lasco, Gideon. 2016. “‘If You’re Fair-Skinned, You’re Noticeable’: Millions of Asian Men Are Using Skin-Whitening Products.” Quartz. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://qz.com/847405/millions-of-asian-men-are-using-potentially-dangerous-skin-whitening-products-to-get-ahead-in-work-and-life/).
(7) Tharps, Lori L. 2016. “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism.” Time. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (http://time.com/4512430/colorism-in-america/)
(8) Koul, Scaachi. 2017. “Some Of Your Fave Skin Care Companies Sell Skin Lightening Products.” BuzzFeed. Retrieved March 22, 2018 (https://www.buzzfeed.com/scaachikoul/doves-gaffe-is-part-of-a-history-of-racist-beauty-marketing?utm_term=.an7m8EGDX#.iq685nYN7).
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.