The darker side of skin-whitening

Cheap yet dangerous skin whitening products are flooding the Myanmar cosmetic markets. Words by Suzin Lynn. Photos by Angel Ko Ko.

Similar to its regional neighbors, Myanmar often equates lighter skin with a higher stature and beauty, connections that have driven an industry of skin-bleaching treatments. Most of those signing up to the often-hazardous products splayed across advertisements are Myanmar women aged between 21 and 35, according to local skin clinics.

“I felt like I didn’t fit in with my city friends,” said a 32-year-old convenience store owner, who did not wish to be named in this feature. “I get teased so much because of my upbringing and skin color.”

The woman began using skin-whitening products at the age of 18 when she first moved to Yangon from a village near Bagan. Beginning with mainstream brands such as Nivea, she transitioned to more obscure creams from Thailand, Japan, and Korea.

“For the first few days, I felt like my face and neck were burning, but I thought nothing of it; just the product taking effect,” she said. After two weeks, small dark patches began to form around her face and neck, gradually enlarging. “That’s when I stopped and ran to the doctor.”

She dropped the product but persisted with skin-whitening treatment in the hope of finding a product that would “instantly whiten my skin.” That product, she believed, was a Korean skin cream, which she described as a “miracle” that gave her an “instant glow and whiteness.” But after using it, her skin burned. “Even using thanaka, I felt my skin was hot and stung from time to time.”

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval can take up to nine months in Myanmar, during which time consumers searching for skin whitening products will turn to the black market, said Dr Hnin Leh Khin, founder of My Aura Aesthetics Clinic.

Family and friends told the shop owner she would struggle to find a husband because of her dark skin. She began taking pills bought from the black market, three times per day. “I didn’t tell anyone I was taking them. I was so desperate.” Societal pressure on one side, and a concerning list of symptoms, including fatigue, weight loss, and dehydration, on the other, she returned to the doctor, who told her the pills were damaging her kidneys.

Excessive usage of bleaching and whitening products can even lead to cancer, said Hnin Leh Khin. High levels of mercury typically found in the products cause rashes, discoloration, and scarring, he explained, while high-percentage alcohol, silicones and steroids dehydrate the skin and hinder cell renewal.

Dermalogica Myanmar provides “brightening” treatment plans based on skin types and emphasizes the importance of hygiene for healthy skin, said its education manager Dr Su Watkins. Obsessive usage of skin whitening products can cause extreme sensitivity and skin thinning, meaning the person eventually can not use any skin products at all.

“People who come to our clinic have uneven skin issues, a lack of skin care, and have used various skin products without any prior knowledge,” said the doctor.

Dermalogica and California Skin Spa work together to raise awareness of skin health, and teach the pros and cons about the products. Dermalogica advises against artificial color, flavoring and fragrance, as well as SD alcohol, an antibacterial and cleansing agent, animal fats and animal testing.

“A person’s skin pigmentation is more genetically influenced and trying to change that could result in damaging consequences,” said Su Watkins. Whereas sometimes damaging tone-altering such as exposure to UV-rays can be prevented, bleaching can be irreparable. One particular consequence is cystic-acne, in which the pores become blocked, leading to inflammation and infection.

Both Hnin Leh Khin and Su Watkins agree that the government should do more to education the public on the impact of skin bleaching products. Su Watkins added that consumers should more heavily scrutinize products.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” she explained. “We have to use products based on seasons and weather conditions.” Going against the “natural order of your body” will have dire consequences, she said.

Years of using skin-whitening products have left the Yangon shop owner scarred and with severe skin pain, but she would still consider using them again.

“I might, I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure; I’ve learned to be more careful. Of course, I still want to be beautiful, but I don’t think anyone should put their health at risk for that.”

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