Skin Whitening Ambitions: Why and at What Cost?

By Priyanka Bansal

June 2022 FEATURE
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THEY SAY “beauty has no skin tone” but fair skin has always been associated with status, beauty and even morality. In Malaysia, some workplaces prefer candidates with lighter skin tones, particularly where public dealing is involved. Fair skin, especially for women, is one of the primary qualities with which to judge one’s beauty.

“I am personally okay with most skin tones as long as it’s not extreme…” says Manish Jindgar, a technical lead in the IT industry. When asked what he thinks contributed to the discrimination against darker-skinned people, he offers, “It could be because white civilisations used to dominate historically; that might have prompted the mindset that people with darker skin are inferior. Though I think that this discrimination can be eradicated with time.”

Manish Jindgar.

While there have been numerous movements in the West against colourism, a preference for lighter skin tones is still prevalent in Asia. The desire for light skin, however, is not a modern phenomenon. Light skin traditionally denotes wealth and status in many places in Asia because it suggests that they can afford to stay indoors instead of toiling for hours under the sun. Pale and unblemished skin, for example, are central aspects of femininity and social identity among urban Chinese women. In ancient Chinese literature, attractive women were also often described by comparing their skin to that of “snow”, “ice” and “jade”.

A Chindian lady who prefers to stay anonymous divulges, “During my primary school days, I felt pressured. Most of my friends were Chinese and since I was active in sports, I used to be tanner. I would compare my skin tone to theirs because I thought people liked fair-skinned individuals more. As a teenager I used to apply Hazeline snow cream thinking that it would make my skin fairer.” Her child, who is a quarter Chinese, also received a negative comment on her skin tone from an acquaintance. “This infuriated me – the thought that society doesn’t spare even a young child from such comments,” she laments.

In India, where there is a history of oppression against darker-skinned individuals by the Brahmins and the British, such bias is also rampant. Brahmins, the lighter-skinned upper caste in India, have traditionally looked down on those with darker skin, considering it something that needs to be “corrected”. This has even influenced the practice of Ayurveda, an alternative natural medicine system, which made references to skin lightening processes, supposedly by regulating melanin production.

It is no wonder then that Asia is one of the biggest markets in the world for skin whitening products. Cosmetic companies peddle body moisturisers, face creams and serums that promise to whiten users’ skin. Celebrities are paid to endorse these products, claiming that they can enhance consumers’ attractiveness, youthfulness and confidence. The advertising industry reinforces and preys on consumers’ insecurities, “disease mongers” people into buying their products and ends up making huge profits.

Syaza Athirah admits she started using skin whitening products at the age of 18 due to social and peer pressures and because of self-esteem issues. “Social media and television always portray people with lighter skin tones as more attractive. It became ingrained in me that putting on these whitening creams will increase my chances of being in a relationship. It boosts my self-confidence.”

Neha Dagar, an Indian nursing officer, spends around RM300 a month on whitening products, even though she acknowledges that the side effects of using an unsuitable product can be painful and very harmful.

In many countries, darker skin colours have also been associated with crime and social misconduct, leading to bias against certain races with naturally tanned skin. “People would lock their cars when I walk pass them. Some landlords in Penang would also refuse to rent to me because of my skin colour,” complains Theeban Pillai, a Malaysian engineer working in a reputable IT company.

Historically marketed towards women, companies have expanded their offerings to include products designed and marketed specifically for men. “I was athletic and used to play a lot of sports outdoors so I was always tan. When I entered college, I used whitening creams which had bleach in them so that I can feel more confident. However, it was very drying and damaged my skin texture. I eventually realised that confidence comes from within and I was still the same person,” admits Sahitya Sahay, an Indian actor. He adds that he was often rejected in auditions because of his skin tone.

Indian actor Sahitya Sahay.

Syaza, too, complains, “My skin was acne-prone and very sensitive for almost two years after using a particular product until I found a cream which was compatible with my skin.”

Due to the harmful side effects, some people have rallied against the practice of skin whitening. Skin-bleaching agents are found to increase susceptibility to pathogenic infections. Amita Anil Thomas, a registered Indian nurse, recalls her nightmarish experience, “Once, I had to take medicine for three months to treat the acne that I had developed from using this cream.”

Not all skin whitening products are harmful; side effects often depend on the nature and concentration of ingredients. While some cosmetic products are associated with lower risks, others are found to contain highly active and potentially dangerous ingredients, such as hydroquinone, mercury and bleaching agents like hydrogen peroxide. Side effects of these ingredients include irritation, inflammation, thinning of the skin, scarring, abnormalities among new-born babies if used during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as kidney, liver or nerve damage. Though the sale of whitening products that contain hydroquinone and mercury has been banned in many countries, two of the biggest markets, India and China, do not have regulations against these products.

 On top of the preference for fair skin that is deep-seated in many cultures, contemporary capitalism, materialism and the global beauty industry have now made skin whitening practices widely accessible to consumers. While some people might hold steadfast to their self-worth, they are ultimately still subjected to social perception, pressure and acceptance.

Priyanka Bansal

is an Indian expat living in Penang. Owing to her artistic bent of mind she loves writing, painting and crafting. She is also a passionate hiker with a mountaineering degree. On the academic front, she holds a postgraduate degree in public health nursing with 8 years of lectureship experience.