Skin whiteners are still in demand, despite health concerns

Japan accounts for about 21% of skin-lightening product sales in Asia.

Story highlights

  • Globally, the demand for whiteners continues to climb, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa
  • The Asia-Pacific market is the most lucrative region, making up more than half of the global market

(CNN)The ridicule started at age 6.

Classmates would bully Fatima Lodhi, taunting her and other darker students with derogatory names.
    It got worse as she got older. In high school, she was nominated for the "Makeover Required" category in her high school in Islamabad, Pakistan. And in graduate school, fellow students would yell "let's paint her white" whenever she crossed their paths.
    Fatima Lodhi started an anti-colorism campaign called Dark is Divine.
    "All this was done by my light-skinned fellows, just to make me feel bad," said Lodhi, a 28-year-old early childhood educator who started the anti-colorism campaign Dark is Divine in 2013.
    The campaign conducts classes online and in schools on media literacy, confidence-building and inclusion, with the goal of teaching people to embrace themselves and be comfortable in their own skin. It has now reached more than 20 countries.
    "Light skin, white skin, is still considered the ambassador of beauty," Lodhi said.
    A recent study found that more than half of 1,992 men and women surveyed about product use in India had tried skin whiteners, and close to half (44.6%) felt the need to try such products due to media such as TV and advertisements.
    Globally, the demand for whiteners is climbing, projected to reach $31.2 billion by 2024, up from $17.9 billion in 2017, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, according to market intelligence firm Global Industry Analysts. Routine skin whitener use ranges from 25% in Mali to 77% in Nigeria, and it's 40% in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, according to the World Health Organization.
    Girls from a Dark is Divine session holding their drawings to celebrate skin tone diversity in Tamil Nadu, India.

    Asia's growing market

    But when it comes to these products, the Asia-Pacific market is the most lucrative region, making up more than half of the global market -- an estimated $7.5 billion out of $13.3 billion -- in 2017, according to Future Market Insights, which studies markets in over 150 countries. China accounts for about 40% of sales in Asia, Japan 21% and Korea approximately 18%.
    "In East Asian culture, women prefer lighter skin tone because they believe 'yī bái zhē bǎi chǒu,' which means 'a white complexion is powerful enough to hide seven faults,' " said Shuting Hu, who researches new ingredients for whiteners, looking at the mechanism in skin cells at the molecular level. She is executive director and co-founder of SkinData Limited Hong Kong, a technology startup based on her research at the University of Hong Kong.
    And, as Lodhi found in childhood, darker skin signified more than just a mark against beauty.
    "In many societies, especially in Asia, skin color was long seen as a sign of social class," said Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of gender and women's studies and ethnic studies. "With Western colonial incursions during the 18th and 19th century, the light skin of European colonizers became a marker of higher status, while the darker skin of Asians/Filipinos became a marker of colonial subjugation."
    Rachit Kumar of Future Market Insights added that "the demand is expected to continue to grow despite their potential health dangers. Asian consumers are highly concerned regarding their beauty and hence tend to spend more on such products, particularly the current generation of consumers in their teens who tend to have a significant beauty budget."
    Kumar attributes the rise in demand in Asia to these consumers, who are "ready to spend millions of dollars in order to enhance their overall appearance."
    Cosmetic manufacturers are launching skin-lightening products on a regular basis in order to cash in on this lucrative business.
    Hu herself has tried most of the skin whiteners on the market, using them to treat acne marks or to even out her skin tone after a tan, she said. But she also grew up under pressure to be fairer.
    "When I was very young, my parents, my friends and the superstars on TV all deliver a message that a whiter skin tone is pretty. So in this culture, you will be influenced and be one of them," she said. "Personally I don't want to be whiter, just keep healthy skin. Only after suntan, I want to be whiter, back to my original skin tone."
    However, she adds that many products need to keep up to date with research.
    "Most of the whiteners are using outdated, at least to me, active ingredients," she said. "So personally, I prefer to try something new and novel."
    Shuting Hu is executive director and co-founder of SkinData Limited Hong Kong.

    The limit to skin whitening

    "The color of our skin is determined by melanin, which is produced by melanocyte, a type of skin cell. Everyone has different numbers of melanocytes, and that's why we have different skin colors," Hu said. "It's impossible to change your gene or race, so there is a natural limit to whitening effects that you can achieve through using skin care products."
    Seventeen percent of those surveyed in the recent study in India reported adverse side effects from whiteners, yet only 3.1% sought help from a health professional.
    "It is impossible to make one's own skin color lighter than one is born with," said Dr. Soyun Cho, professor of dermatology at the Seoul National University College of Medicine.
    Dr. Soyun Cho, a dermatology professor at Seoul National University.