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Young Indonesians struggle to resist the power of the skin whitening industry

Tessa Toumbourou

white_faces.jpg
White faces dominate the supermarket shelves
Tessa Toumbourou

Faces so white they are nearly transparent stare vacantly from the sides of hundreds of varieties of creams, lotions, soaps, scrubs and bleaches in supermarket beauty aisles across Indonesia. Those same faces stare out from advertisements in magazines, on billboards, on the sides of buses and on television – all proclaiming the benefits of lighter coloured skin.

Promotions for skin whitening products are targeted squarely at Indonesia’s urban aspirational classes. Young university women represent a key market segment. Advertisements portray the kinds of lives they aspire to and free samples are handed out at universities. Many university-aged women believe that regular use of skin whitening products makes them more attractive. But not all are enthusiastic. Some women are concerned about potentially damaging side effects of the products themselves. Many more reject the industry’s message that women can’t succeed in their careers or their love lives without altering their physical image.

Mixed motivations

The skin whitening phenomenon in Indonesia is part of a billion dollar Asia-wide industry that pressures women to respond to the siren call of white skin. In Indonesia, pale skin is promoted as a key opportunity enhancer – a social indicator of status, power, wealth, and most emphatically, beauty. The message is clear. Dark skin is inferior and somehow dirty, ugly, or even unhealthy. As one university student commented, ‘Beauty for Indonesian women is defined as a woman whose skin in white.’

When asked to define the consumer market for skin whitening, university students I spoke to described the majority of users as teenagers and young women aged between 15 and 25. Laughing, a pair of English language students explained that skin whitening products are used by teenage girls to attract boys’ attention. ‘They do it so they have brighter looking faces, like in advertisements of pretty teenagers and women who use skin whitening.’ Students also mentioned the growing use of skin whitening by older women as a form of anti-aging therapy.

Many university-aged women believe that regular use of skin whitening products makes them more attractive.

There are many other reasons why young women choose to use skin whitening products. Some students put it down to personality. But the push for whiteness is also structural. Many women pointed to pressures in the job market, and the prospect of appearing more attractive to prospective partners. Others blamed the growing influence of western culture for pressuring people to become white. One student suggested that the push to use whitening products was a form of cultural cringe, which ‘reduces the value of our own skin’. This was echoed by another student who observed that ‘Our own community does not consider our own culture to be important, so we think the same of ourselves.’

A dangerous habit

Even those young people who embrace skin whitening have concerns about its long-term effects. Most skin whitening products contain mercury or hydroquinone, two seriously damaging chemicals. Mercury, a common ingredient in skin whitening creams in Asia, strips the skin of its natural pigment. It is also a poison known to cause liver and kidney damage, which can also lead to neurological disorders. Hydroquinone, a chemical used in photo processing, has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Ironically, both chemicals also react with ultra-violet rays and re-oxidise, leading to more skin-darkening pigmentation and premature aging. More of the product is then needed to alter the response, which changes the skin’s natural structure and inhibits the production of melatonin, making the skin more susceptible to skin cancer.

skin_white.jpg
One of the hundreds of skin-whitening products on sale in

Indonesia
Tessa Toumbourou

Some young women are acutely aware of the risks and side-effects of skin whitening products. According to one sceptical student, the skin whitening process is on the whole ineffective. ‘I think it doesn’t work to make you white, it’s just lies. But if whiteness results, it is because of the mercury or other dangerous substances.’ Many students also discussed their concern for the side- or after- effects of skin whitening products, mentioning their concern for flecking, reddening and the possibility of faster aging and cancer. Some also mentioned a potentially addictive pattern of skin whitening product use – the product makes the skin more sensitive to the sun and therefore more likely to darken, actually increasing the need for more whitening.

Although not everyone is as conversant of the dangers involved in skin whitening, most are at least partially aware of the risks. Some young women are convinced that it is still worthwhile, but many others are not. As one woman observed wryly, ‘It depends on the person, if they consider their appearance to be number one, the most important.’

Skin whitening sceptics

Despite pressures to engage in skin whitening reiterated in media and advertising, the majority of Indonesian students I interviewed were sceptical about claims that lighter skin is necessarily better, more attractive, or guarantees success. As one woman observed, ‘Although appearance does have a place, I think that when we are ourselves, appearance is not as important.’

Some students rejected outright the notion that whiteness defines beauty, arguing that white skin simply looks unhealthy. Others claimed that the relationship between success and appearance was limited to particular fields of work where success is dependent on aesthetic appearance, such as the film and music industry, or product marketing. In other jobs, they argue, ‘Success is earned through hard work.’

Some students rejected outright the notion that whiteness defines beauty.

Many of these young women believe that deep down, a heavy reliance on skin whitening products actually reflects a lack of self-confidence. In the words of one undergraduate, ‘Maybe for people who don’t believe in themselves their appearance is their own measure of self.’

Many of these educated women were certainly critical of the commercial pressures to lighten skin, asserting that a strong sense of self can overcome the need to rely on aesthetic appearance. This comes down to accepting and embracing one’s own self, whatever one’s skin tone, as natural and true. As one student commented, with a shrug, ‘It is better to just keep the colour you have…if your skin is yellow, leave it yellow.’     ii

Tessa Toumbourou (tdtou1@student.monash.edu.au) is an Arts graduate with a politics major. She recently completed a Diploma of Indonesian Language in-country at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, and will continue living in Yogya on a Darmasiswa scholarship studying at Indonesian College of Arts (ISI).

Dying to be whiter: The black women who risk their lives for lighter skin

By PAUL BRACCHI

Dream girl: Singer Beyonce

On sale in the high street in Harlesden, North-West , yesterday was a face cream called Maxi White.

“Could there be a less subtle name for a product aimed at black and Asian women desperate to lighten the colour of their skin? Indeed, those who purchase the £4.79 gel are guaranteed results almost overnight.

“It worked quite well to start with,” said one customer. “But as I carried on using it, my skin became thin and dehydrated. If I moved my mouth, my whole skin moved, too. My forehead looked like a crinkled up piece of paper it was so cracked.

“Then, ugly blotches which developed into boils and ulcers started appearing on my face. I was a complete mess.”

The reason can be found in the list of ingredients on the back of the Maxi White packet; one is called hydroquinone – which is as nasty as it sounds; the biological equivalent, in fact, of paint stripper.

It not only removes the top layer of skin, which initially results in a “brighter face”, but also the body’s natural defence against infection and the sun, thus increasing the risk of skin cancer.

If the chemical – which is used in certain industrial processes – enters your bloodstream, it can cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Other side effects include headaches, nausea, convulsions and permanent scarring.

It is illegal to use hydroquinone in cosmetics.

This month, a couple who made more than £1 million selling toxic skinlightening creams from two outlets in Peckham, South London, were ordered to pay costs and fines totalling £100,000.

But a spokeswoman for the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) admitted: “No sooner do you shut one place down than another springs up.”

Maxi White, and other banned brands containing harmful steroids, are available under – and over – the counter all across the country. A Mail investigation found them on sale from Brixton to Birmingham (one of the shops featured in our investigation was raided by Trading Standards officers yesterday).

Behind such names as “Maxi White”, “Sure White”, “Fair & White” and “Skin White” is a multi-million-pound industry – and an untold story of exploitation and racism within the black community itself.

It’s a taboo subject, but a cruel racial hierarchy still exists in Britain where the lighter-skinned Jamaican, for example, is “superior” to the darker skinned Nigerian; where light brown is preferable to dark brown. Dark skin means failure; light skin is beautiful and equates to success.

One young woman we spoke to told how she decided to have her skin bleached after being teased and bullied at school (she was called “blackie” by paler-skinned Jamaican girls). There are reports that some parents are even “bleaching” their children

It is an attitude all too familiar to Sherry Dixon, editor-at-large of Pride, the lifestyle magazine for the British black community, and reinforced by the complaints that flood in from female readers whenever a woman with strong African features – such as dark hair, broad nose, and tightly curled hair – appears on the cover.

“It’s cultural racism, or shade-ism as I call it,” she says.

The most photographed – and admired – black women ( Beyonce, Halle Berry, Naomi Campbell, Iman) are all Westernised, of course, whether by their fairer skin or European features.

The legacy of such stereotyping can be found in any shop or market stall specialising in black hair and skin products; “Black is Beautiful” was the old slogan, but shelves are bulging with creams and lotions promising a “brighter face”.

Not all are harmful; nevertheless they promote the image – intentionally or otherwise – that blackness is something to be ashamed of, and whiteness revered.

Southwark Trading Standards officers, who were involved in the Peckham prosecution, have a list of nearly 100 banned cosmetics seized from outlets in the borough over the past few years, including some that contained poisonous mercuric iodide, which can cause organ failure, vomiting and depression.

The New Nation newspaper has carried out its own investigation into the scandal. Among the shops it found selling dangerous concoctions was Mona Cosmetics in Harlesden, where reporter Lorraine King purchased Maxi White (Strong Formula).

This week, Miss King went to Brixton for the Mail. There, she was able to buy Mic Medicated Skin Litener Cream (“Maximum Strength”) which is on the trading standards banned list. Like Maxi White, it contains potentially deadly hydroquinone, and was on sale at the Afro Beauty Shop in Electric Avenue for 99p.

Trading standards officials from Lambeth Council, acting on a tip-off from the Mail, arrived to carry out a search of the premises yesterday.

Owners Mohammed Latif, 48, and his brother Wasim Hussain, 28, initially denied selling any of the creams.

Boxes of Mic skin whitener were later confiscated; the brothers were cautioned and could be prosecuted.

In another part of the country, at Beauty Queen in Soho Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, there are aisles brimming with “exotic” products.

But when a Mail reporter asked for a “stronger” lightening cream (a universally understood euphemism for illegal bleaching creams) the man behind the counter produced a tube of cream stashed in a fuse box in the corner of the store. It cost £1.99 and was called Movate. One of its active ingredients is the steroid known as clobetasol propionate.

The compound is not banned in this country but such is its potency that it can only be used as a licensed prescription drug to treat extreme skin conditions. Movate was also sold at nearby MJ News.

Electric Avenue in Brixton or Rye Lane in Peckham and Soho Road in Handsworth are the last links in a criminal chain which begins thousands of miles away in Africa or the Middle East, where such lightening products are freely available.

They are either smuggled into Britain in hand luggage or hidden in freight. Two of the biggest ever hauls, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, were discovered at Gatwick airport in 2005.

More than 46,000 tubes were found in cargo from Lagos in Nigeria, labelled “body cream”, destined for a warehouse in North London. Shortly afterwards, customs seized thousands of products containing hydroquinone from West Africa, marked “foodstuffs.”

Some unscrupulous traders travel abroad to obtain the ingredients – including hydroquinone – themselves.

“They mix these drugs together in a bowl in the back of their shop then sell them in plain jars when customers ask for something “stronger” than the products on display,” says Sara Coakley of the MHRA.

“We have had reports of parents giving these creams to their children, which is very worrying because children have weaker immune systems and these creams can be fatal.”

It is almost impossible to believe, given the widespread publicity such products have attracted, that the people who peddle this poisonous rubbish, if not customers themselves, can be unaware of the dangers.

Trading Standards officials in Southwark have flooded the borough with leaflets highlighting the dangers and the consequences of breaking the law, which can result in a six-month prison sentence.

The leaflet asks: “Sale of illegal products -IS IT WORTH IT?”

The answer can be found in a treelined avenue in Sydenham, South-East London, where Yinka and Michael Oluyemi live in an £800,000 six-bedroom mock tudor house with wooden floors and Persian rugs. Yesterday, a BMW and Mercedes were parked on the drive.

Yinka, 46, and her husband Michael, 49 – who ran Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express in Peckham – evidently found handsome rewards from the skin-lightening business. This week, however, they were given suspended prison sentences after admitting ten charges of flouting medical and safety rules.

The Oluyemis are just the latest people to be prosecuted for selling banned cosmetic potions.

In 2006, another “cosmetics” company, Ace Afro Hair And Beauty, which has a store in Brixton, was fined £50,000, for similar offences. Hassan Akhtar, 49, who drives a Mercedes, runs the business – which has a £ 1million turnover – with his wife Nasira, 46, and their son Mubashir, 25. The family live in a £400,000 house in South-West London.

“These creams cost peanuts in Africa – a few pence maybe – and then sell for up to £5 here,” says Ray Bouch, senior Trading Standards officer for Lambeth. “The mark-up is huge.”

How many black women use such creams? It is impossible to say, but clearly many do. “I first started using them because I had spots and I thought they would help,” said Marilyn, a hairdresser in her 20s.

Her acne did indeed clear up. But Marilyn continued using these dangerous cosmetics for another two years because “people began asking me why I looked so ‘bright and pretty?’

“I remember using one that burns when you put it on. I would have to sit down and fan myself. Then I watched a programme about skin bleaching in Africa. It was terrible. It showed people with serious skin deformities and tumours. I knew I had to stop. I’d just had a baby and I didn’t want him coming into contact with the chemicals on my face.

“I have stopped bleaching my skin but there are so many girls I know who are still doing it. In the dance hall scene, if you don’t bleach your skin you’re not cool. I see some girls with brown faces who still have black hands – it’s horrible.

“But it’s very addictive,” she admits. “I have a relative who bleaches her entire body. She goes down to Brixton market and buys massive tubs. Her whole body is light except for her knuckles, elbows, knees and toes. She looks ridiculous.

“When I stopped using these creams, my face became dark again. I don’t care because I’m lucky and have not suffered permanent damage.”

The peer – and indeed cultural – pressure which would persuade someone to apply a cream which contains hydroquinone or powerful steroids is graphically illustrated by the case of Melissa Barnet. Melissa, who is in her late 20s, is the daughter of a Nigerian nurse and businessman from North London. She began using bleaching creams in 2000 after being bullied at school.

“Throughout my childhood it just wasn’t ‘cool’ to be African or darkskinned, and every day when I walked through the gates of my all-girls secondary school I was reminded of this cruel racial hierarchy,” she says.

“Being a lighter-skinned Jamaican made you superior to anyone darker or African.

“There were nights when I would sit in the bath chanting ‘I hate myself’ while frantically scrubbing my skin with soap. Other times I would scribble notes to myself saying dreadful things like: ‘Why are you so ugly?’ or ‘Why do you have to be so black?’

“Nor did it help that all the best-looking black boys would only date a girl if they were light-skinned, and vice versa. I lost count of the times I heard the attractive Jamaican girls dismiss the idea of going out with a dark-skinned African boy because he was considered beneath them. Statements such as ‘he’s a monkey’, ‘far too black’ and ‘ugly’ were commonplace.”

Eventually, Melissa experimented with the most potent bleaching soap containing hydroquinone in a bid to make herself more “beautiful”. Her skin became noticeably lighter and for the first time in her life she felt “confident and attractive”.

It didn’t last long. Within six months, she began to suffer the inevitable side-effects – unsightly dark patches appeared on her face and she realised she had to stop. Fortunately, her skin recovered, though some scars were still visible on her cheeks months later.

Like Marilyn, the hairdresser who began using skin-lightening creams, Melissa, a former office worker, was lucky. Some of the women who turn up at dermatologist Sujata Jolly’s clinic in Maidenhead are not.

“One patient was in a very bad way,” she recalls. “Her skin was dark, lumpy and blotchy and had cracked open. The blood vessels had ruptured and you could see blood through the cracks.”

Could there be a more chilling example of the dangers of products like Maxi White?

The cultural racism which resulted in that poor woman being treated by Sujata Jolly is reinforced by companies such as Elizabeth Arden on the Indian sub-continent. The face of the firm’s “whitening skincare” range is Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The creams are harmless but the message, you might agree, is the same. “Women everywhere want radiant, translucent skin.”

Another advert, by British manufacturing giant Unilever, which markets several whitening products in India, shows a young Indian woman dreaming of being famous, but her skin is too brown.

One day her sister hands her a tube of Fair And Lovely skin cream. Then the advert flashes forward and she is wearing high heels and her hair is curled. Most important, her complexion has changed dramatically; she is pale and has landed her dream job.

But dreams don’t always come true – as many black women have discovered after buying a tube of Maxi White on the streets of Harlesden and Handsworth.(dailymail.co.uk)

Skin Bleaching Thrives Despite Ugandan Government Ban on Dangerous Cosmetics


Halimah Abdallah Kisule
by Halima Abdallah Kisule
Uganda -
Scores of Ugandans continue to bleach their skin despite a government ban on the sale of several lotions, creams, gels and soaps which are largely used to whiten, even and tone the skin.


In extreme cases of skin bleaching, the skin can become multi-colored and marred with inflammation or scarring. Photograph courtesy of Halimah Abdallah Kisule.

Due to ineffective enforcement of the ban, these dangerous cosmetics are easily accessible anywhere in Uganda; whether sold over the counter, along the roadside or by hawkers, vendors move the skin lighteners easily due to high demand. Such is the popularity that skin-whitening products have gained today in Uganda.Medically, skin whitening (or bleaching) products are used for treating pigmentation disorders like freckles, pregnancy marks, blotchy uneven skin tone, patches of brown to gray skin and age spots. Skin pigmentation occurs because the body either produces too much or too little melanin, the pigment responsible for creating the color of our eyes, skin and hair. It also provides crucial protection against the sun’s rays by absorbing ultra-violet light. Doctors say that those with darker skin are less susceptible to sunburn and the overall effects of sun damage.

According to dermatologists, skin bleaching can be achieved through a combination of treatments that reduce or block some amount of the body’s melanin production. Usually in the form of topical lotions, gels, pills and creams, these products contain melanin-inhibiting ingredients along with sunscreen. These treatments also contain amounts of hydroquinone, or mercury.

However, other cosmetics companies use natural ingredients to make melanin-inhibiting products. Extracted from plant leaves like the berry family, shrubs and pears, their naturally occurring arbutin leads to bleaching.


A young woman who has been bleaching, gets her hair plaited – her face and chest are a different color than her arms, hands and legs. Photograph courtesy of Halimah Abdallah Kisule.

In Uganda, the practice of skin bleaching is common among adults with dark skin, especially women, but men also do it with little regard for the dangers posed to their bodies. Some people even use the products for anal bleaching to reduce naturally darker pigmentation of the genital and perineal area.Consumers of bleaching cosmetics claim that they want to enhance their beauty. One woman who declined to be named, explains, “One has to look good, by having fair, lighter skin.”

Unfortunately, her skin is now multi-colored from bleaching. She has red skin on her face, yellow on her arms and dark skin on her back. The skin on her knees, toes and finger joints failed to lighten and remain black.
For this woman, the condition of her skin has only brought her shame; she now tries to cover most parts of her body in an attempt to conceal the damage done by the products she thought would enhance her beauty.

Those in the medical profession explain that this condition occurs from allergic dermatitis or irritant dermatitis (abnormal, extensive and often local inflammation of the skin), both of which are common among people who have not previously used the bleaching cosmetics.

“I have cases where people get severe skin burns. It happens when people change to something new which causes allergic dermatitis and irritant dermatitis,” says Dr Misaki Wayengera of Makerere University Medical School.

He explains that the skin of the people using these bleaching products get inflamed, turns red, enlarges and begins to loose function as the cells fail to produce melanin.

Wayengera says that bleaching can be achieved medically using low dosage hydroquinone, recommended at 2%. He advises that it should be used only in the areas of the skin that need to be lightened. He also advised consumers to always read the contents of cosmetics because those that bleach cause health problems like skin cancer, leukemia, thyroid disorders and delay or prevent the ability to diagnose leprosy. Mercury is the most toxic of these ingredients and leads to liver problems.

Though the East African Custom Management Act of 2006 banned the import of all soaps containing mercury, products like Mekako soaps are readily available in the country having been smuggled in before being re-exported to neighboring Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.


The young woman’s hands show how the bleaching does not lighten skin evenly. Photograph courtesy of Halimah Abdallah Kisule.

“They are smuggled in jerricans disguised as water while others come in through ordinary containers but are declared as cosmetics, when [in reality] they are drugs that fall under the NDA mandate,” says Gyavira Musoke, Head of Imports Inspection at Uganda’s National Bureau of Standards (UNBS).UNBS says that Kenya is blaming Uganda for failing to stop the importation of this toxic cosmetic despite the existence of the law. This is just one of the 400 prohibited cosmetic ingredients (that are defined as drugs under the Uganda National Drug Authority (NDA) regulations) that are on the open market. Products containing hydroquinone are still for sale after traders asked the Ministry of Tourism to give them some time to sell off their stock.

Ready markets for these highly valued cosmetics suggest that smuggling won’t stop any time soon, but demand alone does not explain why one would continue to use these dangerous products.

“Such a person lacks self-esteem, has low self-efficacy and a perception that she or he looks ugly,” says Mr Robert Wandera, Coordinator of the Psychology Department at Makerere University. “It is common among women who are not educated,” he adds.

Wandera’s colleague, Mr Calistas, says that it is very dangerous to have low self-esteem because severe cases can lead to suicide.

He urges, “Do something positive to counter [your low self-esteem]. Take advantage of the good parts of your body or talents.”

Prolonged use of bleaching cosmetics can indeed be disastrous both psychologically and physically. One lady who I encountered on the street declined to be named nor talk about her skin. Her dry, pale face showed no happiness. She had wrinkles too – not from old age, but from the effects of starting and then stopping the use of these cosmetics. I could easily read the disappointment in her face when I asked her to talk about her skin. Her response is a clear testimony to the negative effects of bleaching cosmetics and hint at the lengths some will go to for beauty. Her unhappiness is the other side of beauty that we rarely see, but one that can easily be avoided.

About the Author
Halimah Abdallah Kisule is a journalist in northern Uganda who, for the last seven years, has covered human rights, health, diplomacy, politics and education for numerous news outlets. She holds a diploma in Journalism and Media Studies and will soon receive her BA in Education from Makere University in Kampala.

Previously she worked for the independent newspapers, The Daily Monitor and The Weekly Observer, covering law and human rights issues, providing both with extensive investigative journalism.

Halimah endeavors to use her writing skills to bring awareness to the human struggle and find solutions to society’s problems. She is married with two children.(thewip.net)

Skin whitening big business in Asia

inmagine.com

inmagine.com

Customers from Mumbai to Beijing say they want lighter skin, but health professionals are concerned.

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first African-American president got a lot in this country thinking and talking about race. Obama’s triumph proved that any child can dream of becoming president, regardless of skin color. We in America may have reaffirmed the notion that the color of a person’s skin shouldn’t matter. But for many people across Asia, the color of skin matters a lot. In recent years, “skin whitening” has become a huge industry in countries like China, Korea, Japan, and India.

“The World’s” Phillip Martin has been exploring the phenomenon of skin whitening in Asia and has this report.

Walking beside a rushing stream in Hsingchu, Taiwan, 18-year-old Hilda Chu balances an umbrella in one hand and textbooks in the other. Her skin is ghostly white. Hilda says she carries an umbrella mainly to avoid skin cancer, but also to preserve her light complexion: “I try hard to make my skin white, yes. If my skin is lighter, I think I will be more happier. “

Hilda Chu is among a growing number of Asians who are paying lots of money to dermatologists like Dr. Hseih Ya Ju who says bluntly Asians like white skin. Dr. Hsieh works at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Hsingchu, where she sees about 25 patients a day. She says her professional motto is simple: “To make your skin white, make your skin tight, and your skin bright.”

Dr. Hsieh says her treatments can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 US dollars per session: “Sometimes we suggest patients take some pills – Transamine. Transamine is a kind of pills that will help patient become white.”

Whitening regimes like transamine are offered in creams, pills, and injections and with laser treatments. But not everyone can afford them — so a growing number of poor Asian women are using illegal products containing toxic chemicals that have left some of them disfigured. Even some government-sanctioned skin whitening products contain high levels of toxic mercury.

So it’s no surprise that Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez, a senior dermatologist at Boston’s Mass General Hospital, says skin whitening can be dangerous: “The best protection that you have for your skin against sun damage is pigment, melanin. If you lose the pigment of your skin, you suddenly become white. The whiter they become the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer.”

But this has not stemmed the practice in places like Taiwan, where more than 50 percent of women and a smaller but growing proportion of men pay big money to lighten their beige, tan, and golden complexions. One survey by Synovate found that 4 out of 10 women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used a skin-whitening cream. More than 60 global companies are competing for a share of Asia’s estimated $18 billion dollar market.

Nydia Lin is a senior executive in Taiwan for the Japanese cosmetics giant, Shisedo: “We promote the idea of whitening. Especially in Taiwan, we see many beautiful idols on TV and they are all very focused on their whitening skin. As Chinese say, ‘Whitening is everything. You can just cover all your defective parts if you are white.'”

You hear variations of that slogan – you can cover up three shortcomings if you are white – all over Asia. But Chao-Yuan Tsen sees whitening as a form of self-hatred and racial inferiority. She’s Secretary General of the Awakening Foundation, a women’s rights organization: “The beauty industries in Taiwan emphasize different skin tones. They say if you can be as white as Japanese and Western women, you can be as beautiful as a cherry blossom. I think this promoting this kind of image that they create doesn’t make women any happier. It actually creates more anxiety.”

Anxiety that’s deeply ingrained in the fabric of Asian society. Beijing-based author Lijia Zang knows this firsthand, and writes about it in her recent memoir ‘Socialism is Great': “I have often been called a “peasant girl”. Even my sister sometimes calls me a peasant girl. I don’t think my father liked me very much because I was not a pretty child. I was dark, and I remember he said to me repeatedly that I was not their natural daughter. They picked me up from a coal dump, which was why my skin was so dark.”

Across much of Asia, long held views about class superiority help explain the appeal of skin whitening. So says Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese Art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. She cites the 11th century Japanese epic “The Tale of Genji” that she says tells the story of a raunchy prince and his descendents: “They had many late night trysts with women who they almost never saw in direct light. And the feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly light white skin. Sort of large, moon-like, roundish faces, long, long black hair. And so you can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might continue on with an ideal that light skin equals beauty.”

That ancient ideal has been reinforced by modern Western culture. And it can be seen in the faces of Western models gazing from the giant billboards along the route of the commuter train that snakes through downtown Tokyo. The billboards also include white-skinned Asians with porcelain colored faces. Across Asia, the pressure to be white is pushed by relentless advertising, from Japan to Korea to India. This ad for skin whitening products features one of India’s biggest movie stars: Shah Rukh Khan – who says that you, too, can be successful in life and love if your skin color is a lighter shade of pale.

Tarun Khanna of the Harvard Business School and author of the book “Billions of Entrepreneurs” says many Indians believe a fair complexion is the key to finding a successful partner: “In the marriage market, fairness is a big, big deal. You can go to the websites that are marriage brokers and the very fact that most of the matrimonial ads will present people as being fair skinned or not indicate that it is an attribute that the market values.”

Indeed. Of the more than 200 personal ads I surveyed online, 192 Indian men and women either described themselves as fair skinned or said they were looking for a partner who was. It’s a common desire across Asia. On the streets of Beijing, with translation assistance from a young writer, Mia Lee, a reddish-hued migrant worker from Central China was asked what he thought was the secret to happiness.

He wants a girlfriend with pale skin.

Which is why you see advertisements for skin whitening products just about everywhere here. Author Lijia Zang says it’s another sign of China’s emerging middle class and the social pressures faced by women trying to enter the professional work force: “So for some women, even those who don’t think white is particularly beautiful, but in order to go far in a career, in order to attract a good boyfriend, they try to put on whitening cream.”(pri.org)

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

How skin lightening takes its toll on your health

inmagine.com

inmagine.com

EDGAR R. BATTE

Walking around town will reveal just how low some women think of their natural black skin complexion. They strive to achieve a lighter skin complexion because they think that the lighter their skin complexions are, the better and probably more appealing they will look.

As such, skin bleaching continues to manifest itself in many black communities where even the supposedly lighter-looking women will go an extra mile to make themselves lighter.

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Several women in Uganda use soaps and creams containing mercury to obtain a lighter complexion. NET PHOTO

Skin whitening, as answers.com offers, is a term covering a variety of cosmetic methods used to whiten the skin, in parts of East Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

The site adds that skin lightening or whitening is a controversial topic as it is closely intertwined with the detrimental effects on health, identity, self image and racial supremacy.

According to Dr Pius Okong, a health consultant with St Francis Hospital Nsambya, this remains a big problem he attributes to inferiority complex where women are not satisfied with the colour of their skins and therefore go out to try and achieve a light complexion which comes with a price to pay. In most cases, the products have found their way to shops unchecked yet the effects of the chemicals used in making (such) products like soaps and creams, as Dr. Vincent Karuhanga explains, have been found to have adverse effects on unborn children, women and men.

“Many of these bleaching agents contain steroids, hydroquinone and mercury which can affect the body as drugs do, given the fact that they interfere with the production of melanin- group of naturally occurring dark pigments, especially the pigment found in skin,” Dr Karuhanga elaborates.

In communities, the problem has not gone unattended to and last year, The International Anti-Corruption Theatre Movement (IATM), a pressure group against bleaching, indicated that thousands of women in Uganda use soaps containing mercury to obtain a lighter complexion without knowing the health hazards of using such soaps.

Mercury according to findings through Nordic Chemicals Group, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and Ms Uganda, causes a number of health problems such as skin cancer and nervous disorder.

Steroids, on the other hand, could cause diabetes given that they increase the amount of sugar metabolism in the body thus worsening the infection, Dr Karuhanga adds. He points out creams like Pimplex usually used to treat pimples, contain mercury which is reportedly poisonous.

According to mercuryexposure.org, mercury-based bleaching creams contain ammoniated mercury or mercrous chloride as a bleaching agent. Some of these creams may contain up to more than 2-5 per cent mercury that will be harmful to health, therefore resulting in mercury poisoning, especially chronic mercury poisoning.

“In the Minimata epidemic in Japan, there were 42 brain-damaged children in 400 live births. Only one of the mothers had no sign of having mercury poisoning.

Majority of the mothers had used mercury-based bleaching creams during their childbearing years,” mercuryexposure.org explains.

“The biggest problem is that by the time someone realises signs of the effects, the damage is already done.

The inferiority complex has also caught up with men and they have started bleaching their skins too,” Dr Karuhanga further explains, adding that the worst side effect victims could suffer would be worsened infections.

Mercury, he adds, can affect the kidney and nervous system while hydroquinone can damage the body nerves as well as the blood cells. Steroids have a pushing syndrome and can thus precipitate high blood pressure, diabetes and could cause acne.

However, that is not to say all bleaching agents have bad side effects. And as Dr Karuhanga and David Ssali, a dermatologist at Dama Medical Clinic agree, some herbal creams and soaps have been found to be good, given the fact that most are natural.

According to Ssali, for most people, the intention is not to bleach. They are looking for a good skin but with the continuous trials with different products, end up bleaching their skins unknowingly.

“People should be made aware of alternatives to achieving this (good skin). They could eat fruits like carrots, simsim and a variety of coloured fruits and vegetables,” Ssali who did not rule out skin cancer for continued use of skin products, adds.

“By using some of these products, you remove the natural pigment which makes the skin vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, opening the skin pores further which puts you at many health risks,” he warns.

According to the AAR Health services Kenya website, dermatologists caution that the treatment of skin conditions must be done strictly with the advice of the gynaecologists or dermatologists. In pregnant women, the unborn child is susceptible to medications, even those applied to the skin and great care must be taken.

In neighbouring Kenya, there has been a ban on bleaching creams with stringent laws and public campaigns have been launched to address the harmful effects of these products on the skin.

Much as effort has been taken to ban the importation of skin lightening creams, they are still in plenty and sold across the counter in most shops and on the roadside in Uganda.

Ideally, skin whitening could be advised to treat pigmentation (coloration of tissues by pigment) disorders like spotted skin tone, age spots, freckles- small, usually yellow or brown spots on the skin, often seen on the face and pregnancy marks.

AAR Health Services adds that an example of a circumstance under which a dermatologist could prescribe skin lighteners would be a situation when he detects altered skin colouring (pigmentation). A skin lightener may be prescribed for medical reasons.

A Vision of Pale Beauty Carries Risks for Asia's Women

Thomas Fuller/International Herald Tribune

An ad for a skin-whitening product in Hong Kong says: “White or wrong? The right choice. Beauty White makes your whole body white.”

By THOMAS FULLER

Nelson Ching for The New York Times

Skin treatments including lightening are offered in Hong Kong’s subway.

MAKHAM KHU, Thailand — Neighbors gawk and children yell, “Ghost!” The manager of the restaurant where Panya Boonchun worked simply told her she was fired.

The cream that she applied to her face and neck was supposed to transform her into a white-skinned beauty, the kind she saw in women’s magazines and on television.

But the illegally produced lotion she bought in a store near this village in southeastern Thailand turned her skin into a patchwork of albino pink and dark brown. Doctors say her condition may be irreversible.

“I never look in the mirror anymore,” she said, sobbing during an interview.

Whiter skin is being aggressively marketed across Asia, with vast selections of skin-whitening creams on supermarket and pharmacy shelves testament to an industry that has flourished over the past decade. In Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, 4 of every 10 women use a whitening cream, a survey by Synovate, a market research company, found.

The skin-whitening craze is not just for the face. It includes creams that whiten darker patches of skin in armpits and “pink nipple” lotions that bleach away brown pigment.

And while many if not most whitening creams are safe, doctors, consumer groups and government officials are reporting dangerous consequences of the trend. Some involve women who use blemish creams in large, harmful amounts; inexpensive black-market products with powerful but illegal bleaching agents are selling briskly, particularly in the poorer parts of South and Southeast Asia.

“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,” said Darshan Singh, the manager for Malaysia’s National Consumer Complaints Center, a nonprofit group.

Skin-whitening products work in various ways. Some contain acids that remove old skin to reveal newer, lighter skin underneath. Others inhibit melanin, like those with mulberry extract, licorice extract, kojic acid, arbutin and hydroquinone, an ingredient in prescription creams for blemishes as well as in photo processing materials.

Some of the most effective agents are also risky — and are often the least expensive, like mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone, which in Thailand sells for about $20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), compared with highly concentrated licorice extract, which sells for about $20,000 per kilogram.

Hydroquinone has been shown to cause leukemia in mice and other animals. The European Union banned it from cosmetics in 2001, but it shows up in bootleg creams in the developing world. It is sold in the United States as an over-the-counter drug, but with a concentration of hydroquinone not exceeding 2 percent.

Sociologists have long debated why Asians, who are divided by everything from language to religion to ethnicity, share a deeply held cultural preference for lighter skin. One commonly repeated rationale is that a lighter complexion is associated with wealth and higher education levels because those from lower social classes, laborers and farmers, are more exposed to the sun.

Another theory is that the waves of lighter-skinned conquerors, the Moguls from Central Asia and the colonizers from Europe, reset the standard for attractiveness.

Films and advertising also clearly have a role. The success of South Korean soap operas across the region has made their lighter-skinned stars emblems of Asian beauty.

Nithiwadi Phuchareuyot, a doctor at a skin clinic in Bangkok who dispenses products and treatments to lighten skin, said: “Every Thai girl thinks that if she has white skin the money will come and the men will come. The movie stars are all white-skinned, and everyone wants to look like a superstar.”

In Thailand, as in other countries in the region, the stigma of darker skin is reflected in language. One common insult is tua dam, or black body. Less common but more evocative is dam tap pet, or black like a duck’s liver.

Advertisements for skin-whitening products promote whiter skin as glowing and healthier. Olay has a product called White Radiance. L’Oréal markets products called White Perfect.

Last year, 62 new skin-whitening products were introduced in supermarkets or pharmacies across the Asia-Pacific region, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm, accelerating a trend that has seen an average of 56 new products introduced annually over the past four years.

A four-hour television series and interactive web site by The Times, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the ZDF network of Germany.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has published a list of 70 illegal whitening creams. Indonesian officials have identified more than 50 banned cosmetics.

Small groups of people in Asia seem to prefer tanned skin. In Japan, young women commonly referred to as Shibuya girls, after the Tokyo neighborhood they favor, have been regular patrons of tanning salons for a decade. But they are an asterisk in Japanese society, and Asia over all.

“Everybody else basically wants white skin,” said Leeyong Soo, the international fashion coordinator at Vogue Nippon. “People might say to you when you come back from a holiday, ‘Oh you have a tan.’ But it’s not necessarily complimentary.”

Thada Piamphongsant, the president of the Thai Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Surgery, said he believed that about half of all Thai dermatologists prescribed creams with hydroquinone. He stopped prescribing it a decade ago when he noticed patients with redness and itching and with more serious side effects like ochronosis, the appearance of very dark patches of skin that are difficult to remove.

Some patients also develop leukoderma, where the skin loses the ability to produce pigment, resulting in patches of pink like those on Ms. Panya’s face and neck.

When she first began using the cream, which was packaged under the name 3 Days and cost the equivalent of $1, she said she was very happy with the results.

Her skin started itching, but she tolerated it because her complexion lightened considerably. She got bigger tips at the restaurant, where she sang folk songs, she said.

But when her face became blotchy two months later, her boss told her she could no longer sing at the restaurant because she was unsightly.

In April, she told her story on a Thai television program, breaking down as she described how she ruined her face and lost her job.

But first, the announcer ran through a list of the show’s sponsors, including a cream called White Beauty. “Use this cream,” the announcer said. “It gives you expert treatment.”

A Vision of Pale Beauty Carries Risks for Asia’s Women

Thomas Fuller/International Herald Tribune

An ad for a skin-whitening product in Hong Kong says: “White or wrong? The right choice. Beauty White makes your whole body white.”

By THOMAS FULLER

Nelson Ching for The New York Times

Skin treatments including lightening are offered in Hong Kong’s subway.

MAKHAM KHU, Thailand — Neighbors gawk and children yell, “Ghost!” The manager of the restaurant where Panya Boonchun worked simply told her she was fired.

The cream that she applied to her face and neck was supposed to transform her into a white-skinned beauty, the kind she saw in women’s magazines and on television.

But the illegally produced lotion she bought in a store near this village in southeastern Thailand turned her skin into a patchwork of albino pink and dark brown. Doctors say her condition may be irreversible.

“I never look in the mirror anymore,” she said, sobbing during an interview.

Whiter skin is being aggressively marketed across Asia, with vast selections of skin-whitening creams on supermarket and pharmacy shelves testament to an industry that has flourished over the past decade. In Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, 4 of every 10 women use a whitening cream, a survey by Synovate, a market research company, found.

The skin-whitening craze is not just for the face. It includes creams that whiten darker patches of skin in armpits and “pink nipple” lotions that bleach away brown pigment.

And while many if not most whitening creams are safe, doctors, consumer groups and government officials are reporting dangerous consequences of the trend. Some involve women who use blemish creams in large, harmful amounts; inexpensive black-market products with powerful but illegal bleaching agents are selling briskly, particularly in the poorer parts of South and Southeast Asia.

“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,” said Darshan Singh, the manager for Malaysia’s National Consumer Complaints Center, a nonprofit group.

Skin-whitening products work in various ways. Some contain acids that remove old skin to reveal newer, lighter skin underneath. Others inhibit melanin, like those with mulberry extract, licorice extract, kojic acid, arbutin and hydroquinone, an ingredient in prescription creams for blemishes as well as in photo processing materials.

Some of the most effective agents are also risky — and are often the least expensive, like mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone, which in Thailand sells for about $20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), compared with highly concentrated licorice extract, which sells for about $20,000 per kilogram.

Hydroquinone has been shown to cause leukemia in mice and other animals. The European Union banned it from cosmetics in 2001, but it shows up in bootleg creams in the developing world. It is sold in the United States as an over-the-counter drug, but with a concentration of hydroquinone not exceeding 2 percent.

Sociologists have long debated why Asians, who are divided by everything from language to religion to ethnicity, share a deeply held cultural preference for lighter skin. One commonly repeated rationale is that a lighter complexion is associated with wealth and higher education levels because those from lower social classes, laborers and farmers, are more exposed to the sun.

Another theory is that the waves of lighter-skinned conquerors, the Moguls from Central Asia and the colonizers from Europe, reset the standard for attractiveness.

Films and advertising also clearly have a role. The success of South Korean soap operas across the region has made their lighter-skinned stars emblems of Asian beauty.

Nithiwadi Phuchareuyot, a doctor at a skin clinic in Bangkok who dispenses products and treatments to lighten skin, said: “Every Thai girl thinks that if she has white skin the money will come and the men will come. The movie stars are all white-skinned, and everyone wants to look like a superstar.”

In Thailand, as in other countries in the region, the stigma of darker skin is reflected in language. One common insult is tua dam, or black body. Less common but more evocative is dam tap pet, or black like a duck’s liver.

Advertisements for skin-whitening products promote whiter skin as glowing and healthier. Olay has a product called White Radiance. L’Oréal markets products called White Perfect.

Last year, 62 new skin-whitening products were introduced in supermarkets or pharmacies across the Asia-Pacific region, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm, accelerating a trend that has seen an average of 56 new products introduced annually over the past four years.

A four-hour television series and interactive web site by The Times, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the ZDF network of Germany.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has published a list of 70 illegal whitening creams. Indonesian officials have identified more than 50 banned cosmetics.

Small groups of people in Asia seem to prefer tanned skin. In Japan, young women commonly referred to as Shibuya girls, after the Tokyo neighborhood they favor, have been regular patrons of tanning salons for a decade. But they are an asterisk in Japanese society, and Asia over all.

“Everybody else basically wants white skin,” said Leeyong Soo, the international fashion coordinator at Vogue Nippon. “People might say to you when you come back from a holiday, ‘Oh you have a tan.’ But it’s not necessarily complimentary.”

Thada Piamphongsant, the president of the Thai Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Surgery, said he believed that about half of all Thai dermatologists prescribed creams with hydroquinone. He stopped prescribing it a decade ago when he noticed patients with redness and itching and with more serious side effects like ochronosis, the appearance of very dark patches of skin that are difficult to remove.

Some patients also develop leukoderma, where the skin loses the ability to produce pigment, resulting in patches of pink like those on Ms. Panya’s face and neck.

When she first began using the cream, which was packaged under the name 3 Days and cost the equivalent of $1, she said she was very happy with the results.

Her skin started itching, but she tolerated it because her complexion lightened considerably. She got bigger tips at the restaurant, where she sang folk songs, she said.

But when her face became blotchy two months later, her boss told her she could no longer sing at the restaurant because she was unsightly.

In April, she told her story on a Thai television program, breaking down as she described how she ruined her face and lost her job.

But first, the announcer ran through a list of the show’s sponsors, including a cream called White Beauty. “Use this cream,” the announcer said. “It gives you expert treatment.”

Dangerous Beauty: Thailand’s Women Want White Skin At Any Price

thailand woman

Many women in Thailand dream of whiter skin. They think white skin means not only beauty, but also success – professional and romantic.

Cosmetic companies advertise skin-lighteners on television and billboards. But some of these products are not only expensive – they are also dangerous. They attack the skin to make it lighter. Seeking a share of the market are not only major companies, but also countless generic producers who mix any kind of ingredients together and then sell them cheap. But thrift can turn out to be very short-sighted for the clients, who are often left with scathed faces and ruined lives as a result.

———————————————————-

Khun Panya wanted to be beautiful – and that meant having white skin. To fulfil her dream she applied lightening creams, on her face, throat and arms. But the aggressive cosmetics ruined her skin and disfigured her face. She has undergone lengthy medical treatment, but so far nothing has helped. And her doctors don’t give her much hope. This is the cream that was her undoing.”It’s so dreadful,” says Khun Panya. “I no longer have the nerve to go out. I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I have no self-confidence anymore. I hope some doctor somewhere will give me an ointment that helps. Why on earth did I use that cream? Why?”

Khun Panya comes from Rayong, a small town about a two-hour drive from Bangkok. Because she could not afford the expensive creams made by established cosmetics manufacturers, she bought her product at one of the local open-air markets, where, in addition to street food, clothing and household articles, cosmetics are also on sale. They are no-name Thai products. They are cheap and they all promise to lighten skin. Most of the preparations are banned. The information on the packaging is just as fake as what is inside, a fact most sellers seem blissfully unaware of.

“I used the cream on my face every day,” Khun Panya describes. “After a week my skin was very smooth and soft. Then it peeled off like a layer of dirt – and my face was whiter. At the end of the first month I was still satisfied.” She used to be a singer in a club. She lost the job when she lost her looks. Now she and her friend live on what they earn from occasional work, and what their grown children can afford to give them. Originally, she expected fairer skin to earn her more money. “It’s just better to be white, much better than being dark. People look at you differently if you’re white. People whose work doesn’t bring them into the public eye might think otherwise. But as a singer, if you’re light-skinned, audiences like you better.”

Skin lightening products are very popular in Asia, because fair skin is considered to be elegant and desirable – with all the consequences that entails. Niwat Polnikorn knows these quite well. He works as dermatologist at the Thai Society of Cosmetics Dermatology and Surgery: “We often treat skin damage like Khun Panya’s. Many people who come to us have skin that’s become infected, irritated and damaged from using these dangerous lightening creams. Nowadays they make up the majority of our cases.”

Television commercials in Thailand support this irrational fashion. The message on Thai television is that only women with fair skin are successful. Most Thais believe that and buy the skin creams. Dermatologists warn that the long-term effects of whitening ingredients have not been adequately researched – and that includes those in brand-name products. Despite that, even educated middle class women fall prey to the craze for white skin. A pedestrian explains: “It just looks better. Whatever you do, white is more beautiful. Dark-skinned women are ugly – fair ones always look pretty.” And another girl assumes: “Perhaps the trend for lightening skin comes from Korea or Japan. But I also think white just looks healther, more radiant – prettier.” “Thailand is a hot country, explains a third woman. “Most Thais have dark skin – that’s why they want to be fairer, like foreigners from the west.”

In health spas and cosmetic salons in Bangkok’s more affluent districts, big money is spend on beauty treatments. These are not ready-made creams, and they are certainly not cheap. Most salon owners prefer natural products and mix their creams themselves. But here, too, it’s all about whiteness. Chawanrat Callan, Cosmetician at a spa, explains: “I want to provide a product that makes the skin so fair that it embodies our idea of beauty. All the media are full of light-skinned people. There are many actors, for instance, who have healthy white skin, and that’s how I want to look as well.”

Commercials reflect the admiration and social recognition for the women with whiter skin. It’s a deeply racist attitude that is hardly ever called into question in Asia. In the shops, there is scarcely any cream that does not contain lighteners. “The supermarkets are full of such products”, Dr. Polnikorn says. “Many are very expensive. Those who can’t afford them buy them on the black market. And that can’t be controlled. No sooner is a product banned than it reappears under a new name.” The authorities have already banned more than fifty products. Those who make them are seldom caught.

For Khun Panya, the pursuit has come too late. But to prevent others from suffering the same fate, she has dared to go public. Education is sorely needed, especially in rural areas of Thailand, where most people have little idea of how dangerous these creams can be. “Many women saw me on television and phoned in immediately,” she remembers. Because they had the same symptoms I had: redness and itching. I told them: ‘stop using those creams. And do it soon. Just look at me.'” Despite that, Khun Panya still thinks white skin is more beautiful. She just thinks she chose the wrong way to get it.(dw-world.de)