I am a bona fide skin-care junkie, and it’s not just because,
as a beauty writer, I’m paid to be. I sincerely love it. Perhaps
inevitably, this predilection has led me to try to learn everything I can about
Korean beauty. Any regimen that calls for using up to 15 different
products as part of a skin-care routine is something I can totally get behind.
But, in the process, I have been confronted with some disconcerting items, and I’m not just talking about those that contain snail slime. At issue: the liberal use of the word “whitening” on many of the labels. In the U.S., that word has racist connotations that make me very uncomfortable supporting or using these products, not to mention nervous about the ingredients they might contain. To get a better handle on the marketing and social implications, I hopped on the phone with Korean beauty experts, sociologists specializing in race and skin color, and dermatologists who treat patients with a variety of skin tones, to try to make sense of this whole concept.
What "Whitening" Means In East Asia
Skin lightening is common throughout the world, but with decidedly different origins depending on where you live, according to sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the editor of Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. “In the case of the Far East, in countries like Japan, Korea, and China, it doesn’t have to do with trying not to be Asian,” Dr. Glenn explains. “In those cultures, there’s a long tradition for women of light skin to be equated with beauty, and also there’s a class element. [It means] you’re not working in the sun, which is an important [distinction] in an agricultural society.”
The English word “whitening” doesn’t capture that idea well, according to Christine Chang, who has 10 years of experience working for global beauty brands and is a cofounder of Korean beauty e-commerce site Glow Recipe. “It’s such a one-dimensional word. It doesn’t speak to radiance and luminosity and transcendence, and all these things that these products are supposed to do,” Chang says. “It’s not about shade of skin, but about an overall glow.” (Dr. Glenn recalls seeing a Japanese ad that likened perfect skin to that of a peeled, hard-boiled egg.) This study, which ascertained that skin-whitening ads in Asia can help perpetuate prejudice against darker skin tones, also posits that many Asian women use them to get rid of dark spots and even their skin tone, and not totally lighten their complexions. (This is different in South Asian countries like India, though, where they're blatantly sold for the purpose of getting lighter skin.)
We live in a global society, as evidenced by the fact that I can buy all these Korean products relatively easily now. But, while the idea of whitening products sounds offensive to most of us in the States, they're popular in many countries. “The U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa were colonized by Europeans. There’s a huge skin-whitening market in places like Ghana, South Africa, and Jamaica,” says France Winddance Twine, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is writing a book about the global skin-care industry tentatively titled, The Social Life of Skin. “[Skin-lightening] is not as visible in the U.S. today because of the civil rights and ‘Black is beautiful’ movements. What makes this complicated is that an Asian scholar might tell you — and this would be correct — that [the preference for light skin in Asia] predated the transatlantic slave trade, which institutionalized color as a sign of slave status.”
No matter what the origins are, Dr. Twine points out that darker skin is still generally socially stigmatized worldwide, and there are studies to support this assertion. One exception: lighter-skinned people getting tans, which — in certain and time periods — has been considered a sign of wealth and social standing; a sign that you can fly off to St. Barths in the middle of the polar vortex or that you’re part of the Southern California celebrity elite.
So, What Does It All Mean?
This brings us back to these imported Korean “whitening” products. By using them, are we tacitly supporting “skin-color social stratification,” as Dr. Twine calls it? Well, while the wording suggests otherwise, these products aren't actually formulated to make your skin a lighter shade. Actual skin-bleachers are still readily available worldwide, including here, and are marketed as such — often with questionable messages — by big beauty companies.
A lot of it comes down to semantics. Chang, who works with several Korean beauty brands, says that she and her business partner encourage companies to change the packaging to state “brightening” benefits before selling in the U.S. It’s a marketing strategy that goes both ways. Western companies, from Vaseline to Chanel, market the same products as “brightening” or “dark-spot correcting” here and as “whitening” in Asia. "Language really matters," says Dr. Twine. "In Asia you can say 'whitener,' in the Caribbean you can say 'bleaching,' in India you say 'lightener.' In the U.S. you say 'fade cream,' and if you’re marketing to older women, you say 'anti-aging.'” But, it doesn’t mean they’re all meant to bleach your skin.
Two dermatologists — Alicia Barba, MD, who has a Miami-based practice, and Carlos Charles, MD, who started a practice in NYC specializing in darker skin tones — tell me that they’ve had patients who buy black-market products that they use with the goal of trying to lighten their skin. Those can contain high doses of topical steroids, mercury, or high-prescription doses of hydroquinone, a well-known and controversial skin lightener. Mercury is toxic, and high doses of steroids on the skin can cause severe acne, stretch marks, and skin-thinning.
Here in the U.S., hydroquinone can be used in up to a 2% concentration over-the-counter (OTC). There have been animal studies suggesting it’s a carcinogen in large doses, leading it to be banned except as a prescription drug in the E.U. and other countries abroad. In 2006, the FDA called for a ban on OTC hydroquinone use here, but it went nowhere and you can still buy products with the ingredient. Dr. Charles warns that while it’s an effective compound for lightening hyperpigmentation, “you can get a white halo around the dark spot.” Dr. Barba says that there’s a potential for abuse, even at lower concentrations. “Patients will use it every day for years to try to get a shade lighter, as opposed to treating a condition,” she explains.
The punchline here is that of the dozens of Korean whitening/brightening products I’ve picked up that have English ingredient translations, I’ve never once seen hydroquinone listed (or, thankfully, steroids or mercury). But, it’s definitely a case of buyer beware. If you don’t read Korean, you really don’t know what you’re getting — and if there's a translation, it's important to make sure that it's complete and accurate. And then, there’s the worrisome example of Japanese brand Kanebo, which back in 2013 had to recall its skin-lightening line after a proprietary synthetic ingredient caused side effects in over 6,000 customers in multiple countries. So, without meaning to sound too fatalistic here, anytime you slap anything on your face, you take a risk.
Who Should Use These Products?
These products are appropriate for anyone looking to even tone or fade dark spots, which both Dr. Barba and Dr. Charles say is the number-one complaint of their patients with darker skin tones. Looking to correct these blemishes is not a sign that you want to change your skin color. In fact, Dr. Barba points out that her patients never ask her for lighter skin, but rather to even the tone they have.
The most frequently occurring ingredient I’ve seen in these products is niacinamide, which is also commonly used here in the West, as a dark-spot fader and overall skin brightener and conditioner. Desiree Stordahl, who contributed to the book Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me and who is a member of the Paula’s Choice research team, says: “When it’s a product that’s using a brightness or radiance claim, typically in those you’ll see licorice-root extract, niacinamide, vitamin C, or mulberry extract.” This observation is consistent with the Korean ingredient labels I’ve gone cross-eyed trying to read. I’ve seen all these pop up, as well as arbutin, ellagic acid, kojic acid, and fruit acids. According to both of the dermatologists I spoke to, all of these have some action against melanin, which determines skin color and causes dark spots. Dark spots are one of the enemies of having that elusive “bright” skin — exfoliating dead cells and adding temporary topical luminizing ingredients also both contribute to achieving overall brightness.
According to Dr. Charles, the above ingredients are generally safe for all skin tones, though he notes that OTC products for dark-spot correction, in general, are "meh" in terms of how well they work. “Over-the-counter skin-lightening products can fade dark marks, albeit minimally, with little risk of surrounding hypo pigmentation [or loss of skin color]. While many of these products are generally safe for most skin types, their efficacy may be limited,” he says. You have to commit to using them pretty consistently to see results.
So, should you try these? If you’re concerned about brightness, dark spots, or evening skin tone, no matter what your skin color is, the answer is yes. If/when more Korean beauty companies start to hit big western retailers — like Laneige at Target and Belif at Sephora already have — consumers will send a message that calling something “whitening” is not okay. As far as safety and efficacy, I’ve become comfortable with this category as long as the products come from reputable retailers. After much research and reading — only a fraction of which I’ve shared with you here — I’ve tried several options on my sun-damaged, dark-spotted skin. (I’m of Eastern European descent and pale.) Here are three products that I’ve tried and liked, from vendors I trust:
Cremorlab Triple Bright White Bloom Floral Cream, $72, available at Peach and Lily: It’s a multitasker that helps to even skin tone and moisturize.
Goodal Luminant Plus Whitening Essence, $45, available at Glow Recipe: This serum feels non-sticky and super-nourishing. I use it to spot-treat my problem areas.
Skinfood Deep Sea Water Brightening Hydrogel Mask, $3, available at Soko Glam: This is one of my favorite hydrogel masks, ever, and I’d be lying if I said the cool, undersea-themed packaging wasn’t part of the reason.
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