updated 11 Jan 2011, 04:20
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Tue, Jan 11, 2011
The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network
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Beauty & the bleach

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all? Say the mantra, and you’ll have the image of Snow White in your mind – fair-skinned with rose-red lips.

It doesn’t stop there though. A picture perfect for most women, the pale princess is also a symbol of innocence and elegance.

If you can see the connection, then you might understand why our outer appearance, or more specifically, the color of our skin, has always been associated to certain traits and qualities.

Have you ever wondered why the darker-skinned Princess Jasmine and Mulan share the same rebellious character?

Well, some might say: “Those things only exist in Disney’s fairytales, don’t they?” But in fact, these kinds of beauty standards have been around for centuries, as ancient Roman and Greek women did everything they possibly could to whiten their skin.

Because pale skin signified feminity, innocence, sophistication and high social rank, these women resorted to chalks and lead paints to turn their desire for seemingly perfect skin into reality – oblivious to the poisonous nature of the compounds used.

Have women today learned from those past lessons?

Not really. Although beauty standards have gone in many directions, women relentlessly pursue certain beauty standards – be it western women dreaming of having sun-kissed tan skin, or Asian ones yearning for a whiter complexion.

And in the latter case, we, Asians, have to confess: Most of the time, we simply go for products without knowing the whitening agents they use – be it mercury, hydroquinon, alpha-hydroxy acid, kojic acid, arbutin or licorice.

We are blinded by advertisements and media idolizing the porcelain-pale beauty.

“As the common rule says, ‘you want what you don’t have’,” said dermatologist Retno Iswari Tranggono, president of the Indonesian Cosmetologist Association (HIKI).

“Asians want whiter skin, while westerners want more tanned skin.”

The skin whitening business – now valued at €13 billion (S$26.3 billion) in the region, according to In-Cosmetics Asia – has certainly been growing fast in Asia since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a study released by marketing firm Synovate in 2004 found that three out of five women surveyed in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan felt they looked younger with fair complexions, while two out of five felt more attractive with fair complexions.

So, will we still want Snow White’s skin many years from now? And will skin whitening products still dominate the market?

“Absolutely,” Vassiliki Petrou, P&G’s beauty director and trend expert, told The Jakarta Post recently.

“And the trend is also spreading to the West,” she added.

Skin whitening, however, is a bit different today. It’s more about having “radiant” skin, not so much pale and white, and women with paler skin are also falling into the trap.

“Having radiant and light [skin] is a big thing,” Petrou said, “and I think it clings to the social cultural trend.”

P&G’s Olay brand for the medium-level consumers, and SK-II for premium-level ones, focus on anti-aging and skin-lightening products, promising women more radiant, translucent skin.

And P&G is not alone – now, every beauty company seems to have their own skin-whitening lines, ranging from soaps, lotions and creams to serums, essences and make up.

Not to mentions whitening products that come in the form of pills and liquids to be injected.

Perhaps going to the extreme, are the products that bleach dark-colored nipples, turning them into a pinkish color. Sounds pretty, well, odd, doesn’t it?

There’s of course nothing wrong with wanting to change one’s appearance. But as a rule of thumb, it should be done in a safe way.

And that is when knowledge and expertise come into play, Retno pointed out.

Going the very basic, Retno said, we must first know about our skin.

“Brown-colored Asian skin contains more melanin than light Caucasian skin,” she said of the pigment that determines the color of our skin, eyes and hair.

“This means that we tan more easily than Caucasians,” she added.

Melanin has two major forms that create varying skin tones – eumelanin, which produces a range of brown skin and hair color, and pheomelanin that creates a yellow to reddish hue.

While African skin mostly contains eumelanin, Caucasian’s contains pheomelanin. Asian skin, on the other hand, is a mixed of pheomelanin and eumelanin.

“Because we genetically have more melanin, and we live around the equator, where the intensity of sunlight is high, our efforts to whiten our skin could be useless,” said Retno, also the founder of Ristra Institute of Skin Health and Beauty Sciences.

“You might be successful once, but without proper maintenance like using sunblock, your skin will easily get dark again,” she said.

We genetically have more melanin, Retno continued, to match the warm climate we live in. Why?

Because melanin actually protects the skin against the sun’s rays thanks to the built-in SPF (sun protection factor).

“The more melanin our skin contains, the more protected it is,” Retno revealed.

Therefore, “We should be thankful to for having dark brown skin,” said Retno, adding that the ideal SPF for Indonesians actually ranges from two to five.

Of course, Retno acknowledged that convincing Asian women to accept their skin color, and not use whitening products was not an easy task.

Therefore it is important for them to be well-informed about skin whitening products and understanding how they work.

According to Retno, whitening products usually inhibit the formation of melanin, degrading it and removing the older, darker skin to unveil lighter- and younger-looking skin underneath it.

Sounds gentle? Not really, as it depends on the whitening agents we use. Most of them, in fact, work by forcing layers of the skin to peel off. Unfortunately, until a new layer grows, the skin remains exposed to sunrays, which can stimulate skin cancer growth.

The use of whitening substances like mercury and hydroquinone also poses a grave danger to us as they are toxic and may cause death.

“If the mercury penetrates into the body through the skin, it will be deposited in the brain, kidney, liver, which will later cause health abnormalities,” Retno said.

Hydroquinone, on the other hand, has been shown to cause leukemia in mice and other animals.

Although banned in most countries, doctors in Indonesia are still allowed to prescribe solutions with a 2 to 4 percent concentration of hydroquinone.

Incidentally, Michael Jackson used hydroquinone to make the color of his skin uniform.

“We often ask why doctors still prescribe it [hydroquinone] when they know it’s dangerous,” Retno said. “And the doctors will answer: ‘it’s OK for medical purposes.’”

And of course, it’s cheap, compared to safer whitening products. Hydroquinone sells for about $20 per kilogram, while highly concentrated licorice extract sells for about $20,000 per kilogram.

Licorice extract, because it is derived from herbs, is one of the safer whitening agents, Retno said, and so are tea tree and bengkoang extracts, vitamin C, arbutin, kojic acid, azelaic acid, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA).

AHA – mostly in the form of lactic acid and glycolic acid, is believed to be able to help accelerate skin cell turnover rates and remove unhealthy layers of superficial skin cells. Several studies have also shown that AHA can inhibit melanin production.

Arbutin and kojic acid are also popular whitening agents.

While kojic acid – a by-product in the fermentation process of malting rice to manufacture sake – inhibits the production of melanin, Arbutin, on the other hand, is derived from the leaves of cranberry, mulberry and bearberry, as well as pears.

Retno herself uses a combination of this arbutin, licorice and tree extracts in her whitening products under the brand Ristra.

So being informed about whitening compounds before buying potions, lotions, and make up promising beauty will definitely go a long way.

And so will taking your time to achieve that goal too.

“Whitening [your skin] is a long and continuous process,” Retno said. “If those products claim they can lighten your skin in seven days, they’re most definitely scams.”

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