There is a Chinese saying “when a person is fair, most other (physical) flaws can be overlooked”. While this saying is clearly an exaggeration, it does give a hint as to importance of fairness as an accent to beauty in Asia.
Porcelain-pale complexion is the most coveted of all physical traits for Asian women. Surveys have actually shown that most Asians, men and women alike, somehow associate beauty with white skin.
This engrained view stems back to ancient China when fairness was a symbol of social status. In the ancient times, only the daughters and wives of the wealthy and politically powerful could afford to stay indoors. Peasants spent their lives toiling in the sun would therefore have darker skin. In addition, the early arts in China and Japan have always depicted goddesses and beauties as having snow-like skin tone. So unconsciously, pale skin is linked to wealth, refinement and femininity.
In the pursuit of fairness, women in the past have invented hundreds of methods and products, ranging from washing the face with rice water to smearing bird droppings on the face. With the advancement of technology, Asian women nowadays rely more sophisticated bleaching agents and melanin inhibiting chemicals such as hydroquinone, Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and mercury. According to the article "Bleaching Creams: Fade to Beautiful?" published by the Northwestern University, skin whitening products sales grew from $40 billion to $43 billion in 2008.
These numbers are not hard to understand when we look at the result of an Asia Market Intelligence survey, which revealed that more than 70% of Asian men prefer women with lighter complexions. About three quarter Malaysian men think that their partner will look better with fairer skin. More than half of Asian women use some kind of skin whiteners.
However, this obsession comes at a potential cost. Many skin-bleaching creams contain potent and toxic chemicals. Commonly used skin whitening agents such as corticosteroid and hydroquinone peel away the outer layers of the skin, exposing it to the harmful rays of the sun. Prolonged exposure to UV rays in turn causes a host of possible health issues.
As a precaution, many Asian women opt to take the safest path while using skin whiteners, which is staying out of the sun and slathering on sunscreen with high SPF. Ironically, new research has found that wearing sunscreen continuously can reduce the body’s natural ability to make vitamin D, which is essential for bone strength and other health needs.