Asians spend an estimated $18 billion a year to appear pale.
According to a 2004 study by global marketing firm Synovate, nearly 40 percent of women in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines used skin whitening and lightening products that year.
“Asians like white skin," said Dr. Hsieh Ya Ju, dermatologist at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Hsingchu
Asian skin whitening has a tradition that stretches back centuries. "The feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly white, white skin. Moon-like roundish faces, long black hair. You can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might continue with an ideal that light skin equals beauty," said Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum.
Asia’s obsession with whiteness is also a reflection of economic status. "Those who had skin burnt by the sun were working in the fields, therefore, the whitening of the skin was a reflection of labor status,” said University of Houston historian Gerald Horne.
Horne also points to a political angle, shaped by the Allies' victory in World War II. “An aspiration of many in Asia toward whiteness is a reflection of the idea that the North Atlantic Powers were the quote — winners — unquote, and therefore they need to be imitated.”
But Chao-uan Tsen, of the Taipei womens' rights organization Awakening Foundation, said the whitening trend is a form of self hatred. “The beauty industries in Taiwan emphasize different skin tones and say that if you can be as white as Japanese women you can be as beautiful as a cherry blossom. This kind of image which they create doesn’t make women any happier. It actually creates more anxiety.”
Moreover, there are medical downsides to seeking lighter skin. That's especially true for those who can't afford expensive treatments, such as poor women using illegal bleaches and creams containing mercuric chloride that have left them disfigured.
Skin whitening can be dangerous for other reasons too, including the loss of melanin. “The whiter they become the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer," said Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez, director of international dermatology training at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.