Skin lightening in Asia

When my grandma was younger, she lightened her face with a white powder. My mother and her siblings joked about it. My grandma’s skin was quite light, because she was mixed (Indonesian with European). I have the same roots, but I turned out darker, haha.

That my grandmother turned her skin lighter had to do with colonialism in Indonesia. The lighter your skin, the more European you are, the more privileges you got. I can no longer imagine that period of time and thoughts.

When I was in Bali with my family, I noticed that skin lightening was still a thing there. I had run out of body lotion, and in the supermarket I could only find body lotion with skin lightening elements. “Don’t buy it”, my mom said, “soon you’ll be like Michael Jackson.”

After my nephew said he had been buying skin lightening soap for a while, to test if he was getting lighter, I dared too. I bought the body lotion and at the end nothing happend. My skin color remained the same.

Yet I now own several Asian beauty products with skin whitening elements. Usually these elements are standard in the products, and it doesn’t affect me anymore. Yet I remained curious where the obsession with skin lightening came from. So I decided to delve deeper into the subject.

The history of skin lightening in Asia

In Japan paleness was associated with aristocracy.
Photo: Kristin Wilson via Unsplash

Many people think skin lightening started during the European colonialism. That’s not the case. A lighter skin was already a beauty standard in ancient China. In the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) to be precise. A fair skin showed status and wealth. In other words: you were rich enough not to work in the sun. And not only in China this idea existed, many other Asian countries thought the same thing.

In Japan, for example, paleness was associated with aristocracy. In the Nara period (710–94 A.D.) women painted their face with a white powder ‘oshiroi‘. The beauty ideal at that time was: ‘black, white and red’. Black for black hair, red for red lips and white for… you guessed it: white face.

Fast forward toward colonialism in various countries in Asia. During colonialism (that started in the 16th century), a lighter skin was a form of status as well. It showed that you are mixed with European blood. And besides, there were a lot of Chinese businessmen. The Chinese businessmen had capital and wealth. And looking like them, gave the same status. Because of that, a whole skin lightening industry emerged. Skin lightening soap, creams, pills and injections were sold, and are still being sold.

Basically you could say, there’s not a single reason why there’s an obsession with lighter skin in Asia. Several historical events influence the current beauty ideal.

Skin lightening in Asia nowadays

A typical skin lightening commercial in Asia
A typical skin lightening commercial in Asia.
Photo: RyanKing999 via Getty Images

In Asia, there’s a lot of beauty products advertising that promise to lighten your skin. Some advertisements go very far into that. They show an unsuccessful dark-colored person. He or she has no friends, no job, no money,… just a lot of bad luck. Then they use a skin lightening product, and within several weeks they turn lighter. Finally they get friends and a well-paid job. All their troubles are gone. Such advertising is unthinkable in Europe!

In addition to whitening elements in beauty products, you can go for the real thing. You can have your skin bleached in clinics. They use several substances to reduce the melanine in the skin, making your skin lighter. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines use some kind of skin lightening treatment. In India it’s even 60% of the population!

It’s expected that by 2027 the skin lightening industry will be worth over $24 billion!

Is skin lightening dangerous?

Many skin lightening products have little or no effect. Nevertheless, skin lightening clinics could often use bleaching agents that are harmful. They can cause blood poisoning and cancer. It’s even prohibited in Ghana, Japan, Australia and Rwanda.

Glutathione pills
Glutathione pills
Photo: irynakhabliuk

Also taking large amount of glutathione pills or injecting with them (a big skin lightening hype in Asia), isn’t without risk. It can lead to serious skin rashes, thyroid problems, and kidney failures.

Most people are aware of the dangers, but they use it anyway . In Asia, skin lightening injections are still in great demand. Perhaps that’s not surprising, because an Asian skin brings problems such as melasma and hyperpygmentation. Read more about it on: The 7 Asian skin secrets.

Photo: RyanKing999

So, skin lightening didn’t originate in the colonial era in Asia. It has a long history, it has to do with culture, and yes the European regime had a bit to do with it. And besides, many Asian women are now looking for solutions to problems for their Asian skin. I’m also fed up with spontaneously dark spots. So if (harmless!) skin lightening products can fix it a bit, I’ll buy it.


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