With the meteoric rise in popularity for Asian skincare, especially Korean skincare, it’s sometimes easy to forget exactly what market these products were initially made for. With nearly everyone stocking their shelves with Asian beauty products, it seems they were made for everybody and every skin type. But if we take a closer look at one particular type of Asian beauty product, we’re reminded just who these products were initially targeted to and how the culture then and now are reflected in the product. What skincare product could so perfectly encapsulate the cultural and physical differences between two separate spheres of the world? Brightening products. Or, as they were originally called—‘whitening’ products.
Many Korean brightening serums, washes, toners, etc. were initially labeled ‘whitening’ when they were still solely being sold in Asia. In most of Asia, whitening was a term that essentially meant brightening—evening out skin tone, eliminating redness, and creating a clearer, brighter overall complexion. All the products were labeled whitening with the meaning of brightening behind it. But once interest in Asian skincare began to grow in the West, it was quickly realized the more negative Western connotations of ‘whitening’ and the term was changed to ‘brightening.’ And for the most part throughout Asia, ‘whitening’ and ‘brightening’ are interchangeable terms. But even though the general understanding and intention of the word ‘whitening’ in Asian skincare is ‘brightening,’ there is more than a sizable obsession still across Asia with the pursuit of actual ‘whitening’—creating fairer, whiter colored skin.
The obsession with whitening in Asia is a long one. Many people think the obsession is a form of internalized racism influenced by the West. And although you couldn’t discount those arguments, the obsession with fair skin is a beauty value that as been around for centuries in Asia. There are reams of ancient Chinese poems using snow or lilies as metaphors for the whiteness and pureness of a woman’s skin. Geishas in Japan did and still do exaggerate that pure white skin ideal by painting their faces literally white. In ancient Korea, women of the court often used white clay based cosmetics to further whiten their skin. Fair white skin was not only a marker of virtue and purity in Asia but also a marker of class. Only people who worked in the fields or out in the markets had darker skin. And to this day, that kind of class discrimination based on fairness still remains in the public consciousness. It is still extremely common for mothers to worry about their daughter’s marriage prospects or their son’s job prospects simply because she or he is dark skinned. It is proven that fairer skinned people skew higher in socioeconomic status.
Of course one could argue that this is true in the West as well. Many people of Latino or black backgrounds also value the fairer skinned people of their community. There have been advertisements and campaigns that have either explicitly or implicitly implied that white skin is better skin. But the difference between the West and Asia in their obsession with fair skin is the overt racial component that is found in the West. Many people with darker skin in the West experience racism, bigotry, or discrimination. Their character and life are entirely dictated by the color of their skin. There were decades of people arguing racist theories that the darkness of some people’s skin was a manifestation of an internal defect of that person or was a mark of the primitiveness of their homeland origins. The term ‘passing’ used by light skinned people of color wasn’t meant to mean they could pass as someone of higher economic standards. It was a term meant that someone could live a life free of danger and discrimination. They could ‘pass’ as someone fair skinned, meaning someone who had the automatic privilege of respect and trust, regardless of economic standing.
In the East, this is not the intent behind whitening. Most Asian countries, if not all, are completely homogenous. Everyone has relatively the same features, hair, cultural background, etc. So for Asians, the distinction of fairness is purely class-driven. It is a purely economic-driven desire. Lighter skin means better marriage opportunities, job prospects, and earning potential. So while in the West, a darker skinned person might want to lighten their skin to improve their socioeconomic standing, a larger, more overarching reason to lighten their skin would be to also escape the oppresive levels of racism and discrimination they face, which is what keeps them from reaching said higher socioeconmic standing. In the East, lighter skin simply means a better chance at moving up an economic class. In the West, it’s racial. In the East, it’s status.
But that isn’t to say that there isn’t any measure of internalized racism in all of Asia. While the obsession with fair skin started centuries ago, Western colonialism and influence has definitely played a part in prolonging this desire for white skin. You can see the influence in other aspects of the Asian beauty industry. Plastic surgeries creating double eyelids or higher nose bridges—all typical Western features—has boomed in the last few decades. It is clear that Asian beauty standards have shifted over the years to incorporate the influences of the West. It isn’t such an unreasonable leap of logic to assume the West has also influenced and to a degree perpetuated the whitening obsession in Asia.
So if the brightening Asian skincare products available in the West right now are truly meant for just brightening, then how do people in Asia ‘whiten’ their skin? Are there any ‘brightening’/‘whitening’ products meant for actual ‘whitening’?
According to a World Health Organization (WHO) survey, nearly 40% of women polled in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea said they regularly use whitening products. In India, over 60% of the skincare market consists of whitening products. In Asia, whitening products is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Across Asia, you can find whitening lotions, pills, creams and even IV treatments. In India, there are whole lines of whitening creams and lotions. Fair & Lovely is a popular brand that promises lighter, whiter skin with regular usage. Any whitening product comes with some measure of danger to a person’s health, with many products coming with a high degree of danger. Many of these whitening lotions have been found to contain high levels of dangerous agents such as hydroquinone, mercury, and bleaching chemicals inducing hydrogen peroxide. All these ingredients pose a serious health risk and can cause serious and irreversible damage to the skin.
But despite the risks, the market for whitening products is huge and ravenous. In Malaysia and the Philippines, there are whitening injectables and IVs which contain glutathione and vitamin C. Glutathione is also an ingredient used in cancer treatments. Injections using this ingredient are known to cause skin cancer and kidney failure. Any treatment damaging and weakening the skin’s natural melanin makes us more susceptible to skin cancer.
The injections and IV treatments in particular also have the added factor of cost. They are expensive treatments that can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars per service. With such high prices, a cottage industry of cheaper whitening injectables has cropped up in many countries. But these cheaper, underground injectables can contain any number of chemicals including plain household bleach and are extremely dangerous. But for the desperate, the price and promise can be too alluring to ignore.
But luckily, times are changing. And with it, so are beauty standards and expectations. The younger generations of many Asian countries are now questioning why white and fair are so prized when so few are naturally born that way. There have been a string of different social media and celebrity campaigns across Asia to celebrate natural skin and to forgo the obsession with whiteness. In the Philippines, half-filipina, half-black actress Asia Jackson spearheaded the hashtag #magandangmorenx or “beautiful brown skin,” calling for Filipina women to take pride in their natural skin and to demand more diversity in media.
The topic of diversity has become a particular hot button issue in the West but the effects of widening Western media diversity are being felt across the globe. By promoting more diverse casting, many younger viewers are seeing themselves represented on screen, allowing for more self-acceptance and love for who they naturally are. Social media has also helped promote this push for self-acceptance. No longer are the traditional gatekeepers dictating what is beautiful and what is not; what belongs on a magazine cover and what does not. Everyone has access to a camera and an app, allowing for more diverse faces to be celebrated and admired.
Although whitening is a troubling problem still prevalent in Asia today, with people risking their skin and health to attain that elusive fair skin, times are changing. Cultural values are slowly shifting and beauty standards are constantly morphing. As the world knits closer together, people seem to be realizing that it isn’t what makes us look the same that’s interesting—it is what makes us different and unique that is worth celebrating! And hopefully that bottle of relabeled ‘brightening’ serum sitting on our sink is a mark of these changing winds.