Asia’s Obsession with White Skin and Lightening Products Runs Deeper Than You Think

Asia’s Obsession with White Skin and Lightening Products Runs Deeper Than You Think

No matter how much we empower women to stay true to their own skin, billboards, magazine ads, commercials and social media influencers featuring thin, traditionally beautiful models with fair complexion far outweigh women representing diverse beauty, shapes, sizes – flaws and all. Here in Asia, one would think that our obsession with having a flawless ‘white’ complexion is rooted in the multi-billion dollar skin whitening cosmetic industry but in truth, this fixation on whiter skin began hundreds of years ago.

Origin of Asia’s obsession with skin whitening

Many countries in South Asia and South East Asia were colonized by Europeans. Their white race was deemed the superior race and the dark-skinned race were considered lower class, viewed as slaves. This understanding of white supremacy has been deeply etched into our minds, passed down from generation to generation in Asia and manifests itself in the Asian obsession with white skin. So the origin of the belief that white is synonymous with power and that white equals beauty began not with the modern beauty industry, but at the time of colonization in many Asian countries.


In China, way before the first dynasty of Imperial China, the color of their skin determined social status. The white skinned part of the Chinese population was associated with social status, wealth and aristocracy while people with darker skin were considered lower in the social heirarchy and belonging to the working class of farmers, laborers or slaves. Some aristocrats even smoothed on lead oxide powder on their faces just to create a much bigger difference between them and the working class. 

According to the 2017 Global Industry Analysts report, the global skin lightening industry was valued at US $4.8 billion. Today, there are more skin whitening products on offer in beauty spaces and stores right across Asia. From powders, creams, face washes, masks, capsules and intravenous methods, the skin whitening methods continue to evolve. Asian people don’t just lather whitening creams onto their faces anymore; they also pop melanin reduction pills and shoot up whitening agents as if it were heroin. It’s predicted that the skin whitening industry will we worth $31.2 billion by the year 2024.

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While some are satisfied with their God-given skin tone, many more long to acquire a fairer complexion and this fascination is unlikely to end, no matter the health risks associated with the chemical ingredients (such as mercury) found in these products. Many of the modern-day skin whitening products also include collagen satisfying the desire for a lighter skin tone and the desire to look forever young. Discoloration is inevitable when people age and these products contain ingredients that promise to enhance, reverse, restore, remove and even lift faces – in other words, defy the aging process. Needless to say the patrons of whitening skincare products range from teenagers through to senior citizens.

Below are some of the general beauty beliefs held in different Asian countries:


Having white skin and putting make-up on is considered essential to enhance beauty in China (and much of the rest of Asia really). As high as 30 percent of income is spent on different skin whitening products and routines to transform inherited yellow skin tone to a whiter complexion.

However, most Chinese people still place a lot of value in their health to achieve a fresh and younger look. Exercise, for one, is completed first thing in the morning followed by a breakfast that is usually made up of anti-aging ingredients such as vegetables that are grown in soil that contains selenium, and some believe eating food as extreme as a sheep’s penis provides the collagen they need for plump, youthful skin.


Skin lightening treatments are offered in many beauty salons in Japan but their spa theme parks also offer a variety of whitening activities and products, tools that can mold your faces and noses to achieve the ‘ideal’ shape and even an assortment of Vitamin E supplements. These supplements are taken while applying skin whitening creams to allow the lightening process to work better and achieve optimal results.

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Achieving a flawless white skin tone is so important that they even have salons for shaving off all traces of facial hair to ensure that whitening creams work better.

South Korea

This country is globally known for its obsession with skincare and beauty. How obsessed are Koreans really? So obsessed that skin whitening often takes a backseat to plastic surgery! After all,South Korea is known to be the plastic surgery capital of the world.

Cosmetic surgery is so normal that they even have a reality TV show called Let Me In where contestants stand before a panel of judges pleading to be chosen for a makeover. When we say makeover, we don’t mean improving your wardrobe or placing extensions on your lashes and changing your hair color. We are talking about plastic surgery!

Since K-Pop is trendy, its associated image and looks mean everything to the Koreans. One participant from the Let Me In reality TV show even stated that it was fine for her to die on the table then live with an ugly face.

In this plastic surgery obsessed culture, Korean children and teens learn to be dissatisfied with how they originally look and want to ‘fix’ the problem. It’s so common that some parents even pay for their children to have plastic surgery as a high school graduation presents. In this world, plastic surgery is seen as a necessity, boosting confidence and increasing self-esteem which enables people to function better and gives them opportunities to land better careers. 

Final thoughts

In Asia, changing skin color is now as simple as straightening natural curls. How do Asian people fight against a cosmetic industry and society where addiction to a lighter skin tone is encouraged and seems unstoppable?

There is a joke in the Philippines that goes something like this, ‘It is not your fault if you are born ugly but it is your fault if you die ugly.’ While some find this joke hilarious, it speaks of the sad truth that in many parts of Asia, altering one’s looks for approval and love is socially acceptable and in many cases, expected.

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