Understanding The Asian Skin Whitening Trend

Skin whitening prevails throughout Asia.  From Indonesia to Pakistan to India, the bulletin reads loud and clear: whiter skin wins.  From skin bleaching clinics to pervasive billboard selling whitening creams,  the trend dominates most street corners.   Certainly as a caucasian traveler I understand the politics behind Asian skin whitening.  However, its omnipresence also troubles me.

Understanding The Asian Skin Whitening Trend

Asian skin whitening. Our boat guide in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Notice how she coverers her neck and face.
Asian skin whitening. Our boat guide in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Notice how she coverers her neck and face.

1 – The Background on the Asian Skin Whitening Trend

Allan and I traveled extensively throughout Asia from Bali to Bangkok.   Consequently we observed many Asians cloaked head to toe in scorching summer weather.  Basically they covered every inch of their bodies in protective fabric.   Presumably, they aim at avoiding the browning effects of tanning.

As evidence of this phenomenon, a March 2018 report by Global Industry Analysts projects the global market for skin whiteners to reach $31.2 billion USD by 2024.  Furthermore, marketing ads promoting skin whitening creams and surgeries besiege almost everyone exploring the continent.  When you travel in Asia, you really can’t escape the ivory hued directive.

Case in point, Allan and I accidentally walked into a skin whitening clinic in Bangkok.  We had hoped to find a teeth bleaching facility.  Instead, we confused the two and surprised not just ourselves.

The Tana Porn clinic lies just around the corner from our hotel.  When Allan and I entered and asked about a whitening treatment, the workers started at us open jawed and blank faced.  “We want to get our teeth whitened,” we mentioned.  The response: “sir this is a skin whitening clinic.”

We exited bewildered.  Why would anyone want to bleach their skin?  The episode troubled me.  So I decided to find out why.

Asian skin whitening. The Tana Porn skin whitening clinic in Bangkok. When Allan and I entered we mistook it for a teeth bleaching facility.
Asian skin whitening. The Tana Porn skin whitening clinic in Bangkok. When Allan and I entered we mistook it for a teeth bleaching facility.

2 – The Disadvantages of Being Dark

Discrimination abounds against darker skinned Asians.  They are categorized as lower class, under educated laborers.  As a consequence they usually earn less and are prohibited from holding more coveted and profitable positions.  Those with brown skin are also assumed to have grown up in rural areas, thus making them part of a more inferior race.

Moreover the bias covers most corners of our planet.  Even at home in Mexico, darker colored workers tend to hold less luxurious and poorly paid positions while their white counterparts control society.

Asian skin whitening. This chap selling flowers covered himself head to toe in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Asian skin whitening. This chap selling flowers covered himself head to toe in Hanoi, Vietnam.

3 – The Message: Whiter is Better

In 2016 Thai actress Cris Horwang caused outrage when she starred in short commercial for the skin company Seoul Secret.  She attributed all her success to her porcelain skin.  “White makes you win” Horwang boldly announced.  After a global backlash the company quickly pulled the ad, but the slogan was not forgotten.

On the one hand I can understand why a skin whitening company would chose a celebrity to promote their product.   In the West celebrities serve as our spokespeople and models.  On the other, I strongly disagree with the message.

Even though we didn’t notice any direct discrimination in our travels against darker skinned Asians, the message was clear.  Whiter people are better.  As much as it shames me as a caucasian to write this, the bias prevails as obviously as a pink unicorn walking into Sunday mass.

Asian skin whitening. I'm alarmed at the lengths locals take to cover up so they don't tan. This couple was driving through Hanoi, Vietnam.
Asian skin whitening. I’m alarmed at the lengths locals take to cover up so they don’t tan. This couple was driving through Hanoi, Vietnam.

4 – The Dangers of Skin Whitening

Skin whitening creams usually contain either kojic acid and/or mercury salt.  Kojic acid whitens the skin and removes blemishes.  In small quantities it’s deemed safe, but it can cause irritation.

On the other hand mercury salt prevents the build up of melanin which darkens skin.  Sadly mercury causes a long list of dangerous side effects from kidney damage to scarring to rashes.   Moreover many companies fail to list mercury as an ingredient leaving consumers unaware of the inherent danger.

To me the failure to disclose the presence of mercury certainly alarms.  If someone consciously decides to apply a potentially harmful product that’s their option. However, occulting that ingredient is criminal.

In comparison I look at the west’s obsession with tanning.  UV rays can cause skin cancer.  Furthermore self-tanning creams which darken skin could be just as harmful as whitening creams.

Rather than judge Asians for wanting to be whiter, I understand their plight.  I tan moderately.  And in the past I applied skin darkening creams.  Although I no longer actively seek a golden brown hue, I do prefer being darker.  Consequently it would be hypocritical of me to propose that Asians stop seeking an ivory appearance.   Essentially I’m doing the exact same thing.

5 – In Conclusion

Asian skin whitening isn’t disappearing anytime soon.  My guess is that humans will continue to change their appearance in search of beauty.  Whether it’s skin whitening, tanning or plastic surgery, unfortunately most of us continue to be influenced by billboard ads and commercials promoting a celebrity like appearance.  However, the real problem lies deeper than superficial alterations.

Our primary focus needs to be the elimination of discrimination.  The color of your skin should not determine your place in society.  Instead consider the content of someone’s character over one’s physical appearance.  Once we start picking people based on real determining factors like personality, physical alterations will be immaterial.

Have you experienced the Asian skin whitening trend in your travels?

Please let me know in the comments.

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

Follow:
Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

Find me on: Web | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[instagram-feed]