Simon Stanley looks at the trend of whitening your skin, and the dangers behind it. Photo by Vinh Dao.

The majority of Vietnamese women will do anything to avoid the sun. Even when Saigon is at its hottest, many will still be hidden under jumpers, hats, scarves, socks and trousers. “Aren’t you hot?” I once asked a friend as she pulled on a pair of woollen gloves. “Yeah,” she replied, “I’m boiling.”

Such dedication to avoiding the harmful rays of the sun is admirable, but women (and more recently, men) around the world continue to seek lighter skin than their genes or any amount of sun protection will allow for other reasons.

The fashion for white skin is not a new phenomenon. Until Coco Chanel accidentally overexposed her skin during a trip to the south of France in the 1920s, suntans indicated a lower class among many Western cultures, synonymous with tough, outdoor manual labour – literally, by the ‘working-class’. As swimwear got smaller, air travel more prevalent, and with more of the population working indoors in factories and offices, having a suntan became a sign of wealth and leisure, something to remind people that you had been to Spain and they hadn’t.

It is for this reason that many arriving in Vietnam from distinctly non-tropical corners of the planet can feel somewhat confused by the local desire to cover up.

A Life of Leisure
Nguyen Oanh, a 24-year-old teaching assistant from Ho Chi Minh City, suggests that the cultural assumptions behind the practice are similar to those previously held in Europe. “For Vietnamese women,” she says, “being white means that you are beautiful, that you are a person who has money and doesn’t work too hard. It’s opposite to the people who have to work under the sun. Darker skin means you have to work hard and you don’t have time to make yourself more beautiful.”

It’s a belief that’s not confined to Vietnam. A 2010 advertising campaign in India for a men’s ‘skin-whitening’ cream was launched in conjunction with a Facebook app that allowed users to whiten their profile pictures. The story hit headlines all over the world, with some commentators referring to the stunt as ‘self-loathing’ marketing and a blatant example of 21st-century racism.

Oanh, whose skin tone is noticeably darker than her friends’, is somewhat torn between both worlds. “I was born brown like this,” she says. “I have the same skin as my parents so I’m proud of that.” When asked how people react to her skin-tone, she admits it is not always favourable. “People will look at you,” she replies. “When I was a teenager I was shopping for clothes and the shop owner didn’t want to help me find things. I think it was harder for her to help someone with dark skin. Buying clothes is always easier for people with white skin.”

Shoppers with dark skin may, understandably, have a negative reaction when faced with a plethora of ‘whitening’ products. “They will think that they are not beautiful,” says Oanh, “and that they need those cosmetics to become beautiful.” The same criticism could be made for any makeup or cosmetic product, although the ethical issues surrounding skin lightening continue to cause controversy around the globe.

The grey area between skin lightening and racism was highlighted again recently when Thai company Seoul Secret used a model covered in black body paint to mark its ‘skin whitening’ pill. The TV ad, which carried the tagline, “You just need to be white to win”, was quickly removed from YouTube after widespread public outrage, according to Reuters.

While many argue that the existence of such products is merely serving public demand, others say thier sheer abundance may be creating it to some extent: a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s simply good for business.

A Brief Market Survey
Of the 10 ‘whitening’ products we purchased from Saigon’s pharmacies, cosmetics shops and supermarkets, produced by both international and local brands, we found only natural, low-volume and 100 percent safe skin lightening ingredients, many of which are also used in ‘normal’ makeup products for their ability to brighten the skin’s complexion or protect it from the sun. Dr Christopher Flower of the UK’s Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association explains how they work:

“The colour of our skin is determined by our genes. The skin pigment is called melanin and, generally, the more melanin, the darker the skin. It is the case that most skin lightening ingredients act by interacting with the melanin manufacture in some way and reduce its presence or appearance. 

“In the EU, legal cosmetic lightening creams work by having small temporary effects on the physiology of the cells – the way they function – creating a visual effect lasting a relatively long time.  The changes to the physiology are not permanent however, and are completely reversible.”

Although the products themselves pose no health risk, with reduced melanin, which is the skin’s natural defence against the sun, those using such products on a regular basis should also apply strict UV protection.

The culture of skin lightening does become harmful, however, when consumers look for stronger, more potent products to give faster or more extreme results. Wherever legal skin lightening products exist, so too do the illegal ones.

“Unfortunately,” says Dr Flower, “we are aware that there are unscrupulous people making and providing unsafe lightening products. They may be based on mercury, lead or hydroquinone – all of these substances are prohibited in cosmetics marketed in the EU.”

Hydroquinone is a controversial ingredient. As a known carcinogen, it’s often linked to severe allergic reactions and has the ability to remove the top layer of skin if not properly prescribed, leaving it open to infection and UV damage. Prolonged application can even cause exogenous ochronosis, a blotchy darkening of the skin, which is highly resistant to treatment.

Despite being classified as a controlled drug in many countries, Indian and Middle-Eastern cosmetic products containing strong doses of hydroquinone remain easily obtainable under the counter across the world.

In 2013, Tuoi Tre news reported that two brothers from Vinh Long province were hospitalised with severe chemical burns and allergic reactions having used an unknown exfoliating skin lightening cream which had been recommended by their friends.

“For people who really want to get white skin-” says Oanh, “like how in Europe you have tanning beds – they might use whitening baths. After one hour you come out white, but it’s not good for you.”

While the majority of spas in Saigon offering ‘whitening’ treatments will use products containing safe, natural and non-permanent ingredients such as Vitamin C and ginseng, clients are urged to use caution as experts continue to warn of the widespread use of harmful chemicals in such methods.

As Vietnamese incomes rise, holidays overseas become more common and more of its citizens move indoors, can we expect a similar shift in attitudes which Coco Chanel prompted in the West almost a century ago? For Oanh, the answer is no. “For Western or European people,” she says, “to have a tan means you have money and you spend it on holidays and enjoy your life. But in Vietnam, even for people who are rich and can afford a holiday on a beach, they still try to cover themselves or put on a lot of sunscreen.” 

Common skin lightening ingredients
•Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
•Citrus medica limonum (lemon) extract
•Gingko biloba leaf extract
•Ginseng root extract
•Glabra root extract
•Liquorice root extract
•Mulberry root extract
•Olive oil
•Sunflower seed oil
•Zinc Oxide & Titanium Dioxide (commonly found in sunscreen)