Almost every aspect of mainstream media today talks about inclusivity and diversity. Even the beauty industry, which previously thrived in having one ideal standard, learned to adjust and cater to a wider and more 'realistic' set of audiences. Here in the East, however, it seems like there is still a struggle in overcoming unrealistic beauty standards.
Just a couple of months ago, we reported on South Korean women destroying their makeup in protest against their society's prejudicial expectations on beauty. Then, just last month in the Philippines, two ads for whitening brands were slammed for the messaging that naturally tanned skin is much more inferior to lighter skin. This makes us wonder: is it now time for us to finally discuss skin brightening versus bleaching and its bigger implications on the Asian perception of beauty?
Now, in all honesty, we believe that your beauty choices belong to you. If you love brightening products or take treatments to achieve your dream skin, you do you. If you've journeyed far (literally or emotionally) on accepting your own raw and natural beauty, you do you. After all, beauty should be empowering. However, it is also worth noting that there is a difference between wanting to be your best 'you' and actually endangering yourself in an unending pursuit to getting 'the perfect look'.
Beauty as a status symbol
In a YouTube documentary done by Refinery29, countries in Asia are the biggest markets when it comes to skin whitening products. The Philippines, specifically, holds the majority of the record when it comes to sales. World-renowned cosmetic dermatologist and beauty personality Dr. Vicky Belo said that this is because having lighter skin is comparable to "owning a Hermes bag." It's a status symbol that can change the game for an individual. This is why procedures — including famous glutathione treatments — have grown in demand since 2016.
Skin brightening versus bleaching: what's the difference?
Speaking of glutathione treatments, they can refer to a procedure done by injecting the antioxidant glutathione along with Vitamin C directly to the patient via an IV drip. This is done to facilitate brightening effects from within the body. It was explained that while, at the moment, only glutathione capsules are FDA-approved (not the injectables), it's said to still be a lot safer than relying on products and procedures without any medical supervision or recommendation.
This is because glutathione is already an antioxidant found in our cells, composed of various amino acids. Some of its advantages include assisting in regenerating vitamins C and E, helping the liver and gallbladder break down fats, deal with free radicals, and many more. And getting a boost of it through medically issued treatments or certified capsules bought over-the-counter is quite comparable to how and why we take vitamin pills daily — just with a heftier price tag considering its high demand. On a larger scale, brightening is just a side effect of its natural functions within the body. It's neither forced nor is made for the sole purpose of just lightening the skin.
The same principles apply to beauty products that are backed by medical research and are approved for distribution after undergoing certain safety standards. These products talk more about cell regeneration, rejuvenation, and repair than just 'getting whiter in x number of days'. Usually, it also discusses its ingredients in detail and how that can result in possible skin brightening effects. Vitamin C, kojic acid, and glycolic acid are just some of the ingredients familiar to us. Again, similar to the glutathione scenario, brightening is merely a side-effect.
On the other hand, skin bleaching products are a lot sketchier. Aside from skin whitening being its only known feature, it's also usually sold outside of beauty counters or drugstores and typically come with a very cheap price tag. This is because aside from lacking the proper lab testings and medical approvals, it also uses a more inexpensive yet deadly ingredient to deliver skin lightening: mercury. This chemical has been proven to be lethal in the smallest dosage and can cause skin cancer, blood poisoning, and even cause danger to your future pregnancies.
In hindsight, it's clear why skin bleaching, in contrast to brightening, draws in many people. Brightening procedures and products can be quite the investment and the accessibility and affordability of skin bleaching products have become its leverage. But vanity aside, there's also one more thing to consider about why skin bleaching is such an appealing option.
Historically, Asian countries have favoured those with lighter skin, especially since the hue of the complexion used to define societal hierarchy. In fact, this still translates today. Whether in mainstream media, pop culture or just in daily life, skin colour is a factor in setting first impressions. This makes a quick and more affordable approach to lightening one's skin — despite its dangers — look like a clear escape route to make the odds work for one's favour. And for something that has been embedded in our cultures for hundreds of years, it is clear why it's still difficult to shift perceptions on the matter even when the other side of the world is already particularly vocal about it.
Asia's slow but steady approach to shifting beauty perceptions
There's no denying that there is still a lot to be challenged when it comes to Eastern beauty standards. Still, it's interesting to see that some brands and personalities are finally taking the lead in changing this landscape. In the past year, there has been a notable shift on how Asian ads have been geared towards promoting self-confidence and taking charge of your own definition of beauty rather than the simple message of deep versus light skin. There are still blunders along the way, but hey, that's a vital step in learning.
People are also becoming more cautious of beauty ingredients and terminologies. This results in skin brightening being treated more like a potential side-effect than an end goal. What's good about this is that we are learning not to antagonise brightening while still not being dismissive of our own natural beauty. Of course, the lows on societal perception of beauty is still yet to be overturned on a large scale. But if each of us learns to accept our beauty as our own and to prioritise our health should, then we are definitely on the right path to fixing this narrative.