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Dissecting the Pinoy white skin obsession

January 29, 2010 9:20pm
Agonizing complexion. The desire to have white skin may prove to be one's greatest folly.

What’s the price of desiring white skin?

Many Pinoys will spare no expense to have whiter skin. That’s why store shelves are flooded with whitening products—from soaps, creams, and powders. And, oh, who hasn’t heard of glutathione? To be white is to be beautiful. At least that’s what the ads tell us.

Cultural conditioning

But, of course, we can’t just blame the white skin obsession on ads alone. It goes without saying that Pinoy culture’s standards of beauty favor lighter skin. It’s the mestiza madness that was purportedly ingrained into our consciousness since Spain colonized us. They had more than three centuries to make us all believe that whiter is better.

Over a hundred years since the Spaniards left our shores, but now under the spell of American commercialism since then, many Filipinos are still obsessed with having whiter skin. Seth Kahi, a twenty-something UP graduate, was one of those people.

Sometime in 2006, Kahi fell asleep while sunbathing and woke up with a bad case of sunburn. She didn’t want to end up dark so in desperation, she used some supposedly mild whitening products to lighten her skin some days later. That turned out to be a big mistake. Kahi’s skin got irritated and she ended up scratching herself. Shortly thereafter, people began calling her piyaya, after the mottled Bacolod delicacy.

Bright beauty

While Kahi learned her lesson, many others continue to seek — albeit unknowingly —unsafe whitening alternatives. The sheer volume of whitening products out in the market probably proved too hard for them to resist.

SKIN SINS

Placing these substances on your skin may cause severe allergic reactions and other health complications.

Corticosteroid is a substance used to deal with scars or blemishes. Unfortunately, overexposure to it can cause increased appetite, weight gain, deposits of fat in chest, face, upper back, and stomach, swelling, slowed healing of wounds, osteoporosis, cataracts, acne, and muscle weakness.

Glutathione is an antioxidant that’s naturally produced by the liver. Not much is known yet about the substance, but it’s been found that it reverses the melanin’s metabolism by turning dark pigmentations into light pigmentations.

Hydroquinone is used in photo and rubber processing. It is banned in Europe since studies show it may cause cancer. It inhibits the production of melanin, which gives the skin its color and serves as its natural protection from ultraviolet rays.

Mercury accumulates in the body’s cells and can lead to liver damage or kidney failure. In extreme cases, mercury poisoning can trigger fatal convulsions. In possibly the biggest toxic cream outbreak ever, thousands of people dialed a Hong Kong help hotline following information that two popular whitening creams had between 9,000 to 65,000 times the acceptable mercury levels. Mercury is supposedly used to inhibit melanin production.
In 2004, when the skin whitening industry was just an emerging market, journalist Tina Arceo-Dumlao in “A Whiter Shade of Pale: Skin Whitening Products in Asia," wrote, “Local companies in Asia were among the first to tap into the whitening segment of the skin care market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But multinational companies quickly got on the bandwagon when they saw the dizzying double-digit sales growth enjoyed by the companies that went ahead."

Arceo-Dumlao went on to cite a study done by market research company Synovate that revealed that “two out of five women in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan feel they are more attractive with fair complexions."

Synovate’s survey results also highlighted the fact that the Philippines had the highest usage among the countries included in the survey, with one out of two women saying they use skin whitening products, followed by Hong Kong with 45 percent, Malaysia with 41 percent and Taiwan with 37 percent.

In the Philippines, major brands have even come up with whitening products in a sachet.

Jessin Soriano, president of Splash Corporation, which manufactures Maxi-Peel, said, “We have started penetrating the tertiary market or the sari-sari stores."

In fact, despite the so-called economic slump, Splash foresees growth in the market. Trends show that people still want to look good even if their finances are in dire straits. This leaves them vulnerable to cheap alternatives to the popular brands that are available in stores. High end beauty products with whitening effects could run up to the thousands.

Bad bargain

One cheap alternative is Magic Cream, a bleaching agent that may contain corticosteroids. At P300 for 15 grams, it must have seemed like a good bargain to many beauty-conscious Pinoys.

However, Dr. Francisca Roa, former president of the Philippine Dermatological Society, says there have been several cases of problems related to Magic Cream. A common complaint would be steroid acne, which is different from normal pimples. Steroid acne can be recognized by the simultaneous appearance of pimples. “You can tell it’s a different morphology," she said.

When problems arise, the patient has to immediately stop using the product and consult his or her dermatologist. Worse effects include skin atrophy, wherein the skin’s layers get thinner.

“When (you’re exposed to more than 50g a week of potent steroid), you get negative side effects like suppressed adrenal glands, bone osteoporosis, and obesity," said Roa, citing studies featured in medical literature.

Cosmetic craze

With so many whitening products and innovations being churned out, people naturally latch on to the latest ones. Most recently, the glutathione craze seemed to have taken over the whole nation. If a product claims to have “glutathione" in it, people immediately snap it up.

However, the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) has investigated certain brands of glutathione, and found the products to have been “mislabeled". In a Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho segment Lulu Santiago, BFAD chief of laboratory, said that certain products claimed to contain 500 milligrams of glutathione. In reality, it had less than 10 milligrams of the substance.

These tests may help regulate cosmetic products. Unfortunately, cosmetics testing is not BFAD’s priority at the moment. They have placed cosmetics tests on the backburner and are focusing on food and milk testing.

According to Marivic Paulino of BFAD’s cosmetics division, the best thing that the BFAD can do when it comes to whitening products is to ask manufacturers to fill up the Cosmetic Regulation Template as mandated in Bureau Circular 2007-013A.

Despite this measure, there will always be people who’ll go for cheap whitening agents. Take for instance Nena (not her real name), who spent around P35,000 on dubious glutathione products. Nena’s complexion didn’t lighten. Instead, her skin itched constantly and developed rashes.

Needless to say, Nena, has vowed to stay away from dangerous whitening products. But her cautionary tale remains one of the few rare cases of recovery and enlightenment, as more and more Pinoys still want to be white. No matter what. - FVI/HGS, GMANews.TV