The Fairest of Them All

Skin bleaching and colorism in Asian America

Filipino-American Joey Anne Pangilinan was 12 years old when she first started bleaching her skin at the behest of her maternal relatives.

“You’re too dark,” Pangilinan’s relatives would remark, tsk-tsking her as a child in Los Angeles for not staying out of the sun. Pointedly, they’d say she was “parang Aeta,” or “like an Aeta” in Tagalog, referring to the indigenous group from the mountains of Luzon. Sometimes, they’d call her “moreno,” the word for a dark-skinned person sounding tainted and dirty in conversation.

Using the quintessential Filipino skin bleaching products, Likas papaya soap and Eskinol Classic White facial cleanser, the young Pangilinan scrubbed furiously at her skin in hopes of lightening her naturally caramel complexion to a shade similar to cafe au lait.

Pangilinan at age 17, bottom left, in the Philippines with family. (Courtesy: Joey Anne Pangilinan)

Panglinin, now 28 and living in Glendale, says the products, brought in balikbayan boxes from family visits to the Philippines, were a mainstay of her skincare routine throughout adolescence.

“I internalized the notion of not being beautiful enough because I had darker skin,” she says, emphasizing that she felt the need to bleach her skin in hopes of looking whiter.

In the United States, where sun-bronzed skin is prized as a sign of health and ample leisure time, people might consider the idea of intentional skin bleaching outlandish. However, in many traditionally darker-skinned countries across the world, people fetishize light skin, going to great lengths to bleach their skin, often with the use of dangerous and untested ingredients. In the pursuit of less melanin, many experience negative health effects, both mentally and physically at the whims of the poorly regulated cosmetics.

Skin lightening products can be found in Filipino groceries stories in greater Los Angeles.

Everyday, hundreds of millions of people around the globe bleach their skin in countries as disparate as Nigeria, Thailand, Jamaica and the Philippines. Across several countries in Asia, 4 in 10 women have tried skin lightening products according to the World Health Organization. International demand for lighter skin drives a billion dollar global skin lightening market, last valued at $10 billion in 2015 and projected to reach $31.2 billion in 2024, according to market research by Global Industry Analysts.

Despite the push for beauty ideals inclusive of darker skin among younger, more globalized digital natives, the combined economic clout of these countries is a reflection of just how deeply entrenched Eurocentric values of beauty are from centuries of imperialism and the subjugation of people of color.

For immigrants and their children in the US from countries where skin bleaching is popular, more Western conventions of attractiveness don’t necessarily supplant these ideals surrounding skin color.

Among Asian Americans, many have still used skin bleaching products, a reality that the pressure to live up to the ideals of fair-skinned beauty crosses oceans and borders.

Skin Lightening's LA Reach

Skin bleaching is a common beauty practice in many countries across the globe. Take a quick dive into where and why people lighten their skin, from the various places overseas to right here in Los Angeles.

Beyond skin deep

The risks and dangers of skin bleaching

In addition to its implicit promotion of Eurocentric standards of beauty, skin bleaching also carries a host of proven and potential health risks depending on a product’s active ingredients.

The most high profile is mercury, which the FDA banned in concentrations over 1ppm in most cosmetics in 1974. It’s known to induce kidney damage, anxiety, depression and psychosis, and recently made headlines in the United States when a Sacramento woman contracted mercury poisoning from a jar of Ponds cold cream.

Although the jar had been purchased in Mexico and tampered with after manufacturing, the incident shows the consequences of poor consumer safety standards and the general lack of oversight and regulation in the imported skincare market. In 2014, a team of international medical researchers tested 549 skin lightening products available to American consumers online or in major cities, including Los Angeles.

They found that 6% of the products contained mercury, nearly half of them with concentrations 10,000 times the legal limit. Carsten Hamann, a dermatology resident in New Hampshire and first author of the study, says mislabeling is rampant among products from overseas, especially those containing what he considers the top three dangerous ingredients used to bleach skin: mercury, corticosteroids and hydroquinone, which is available over the counter in concentrations under 2% or higher with a prescription.

“When it comes to products with hydroquinone that are imported, it’s much more likely they have much higher hydroquinone levels than what’s on the label,” says Hamann, who adds that topical overuse of the chemical can cause, paradoxically, severe hyperpigmentation. Although available in the United States, the chemical has been banned in the European Union, Australia and Japan for its possible carcinogenicity.

Another popular skin bleaching ingredient is glutathione, an antioxidant compound in soaps, pills and even IV infusions, a popular treatment in the Philippines reported on by Refinery29. According to Dr. Roopal Kundu, director of the Center for Ethnic Skin at Northwestern University, the risks of using glutathione include severe and life-threatening skin rashes, thyroid dysfunction and even kidney failure.

Richelle Caday at age 17, using skin bleaching products. (Courtesy: Richelle Caday)

More commonly used in skin bleaching are less hazardous chemicals like kojic acid and papain, an enzyme found in papaya. According to Kundu, these ingredients may cause minor side effects like skin irritation and dermatitis. Although products like Pangilinan’s childhood Likas soap, which contains papain, carry little to no risk of severe, long-term or life-threatening health effects, they can still damage self-esteem. Intrinsically, their touted benefits contribute to the idea that individuals with darker skin need to change their appearance to become beautiful and find social acceptance.

“I didn’t value myself as much because I had darker skin,” says Richelle Caday, another Filipino American who used skin lightening products in her adolescent years. “I harbored a lot of internalized self-hate. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not beautiful, and I’ll never be. My skin will never beautiful.’”

Caday says she felt significant self-hatred towards herself growing up for having darker skin.

“The thought just became so routine and in the back of my head. Why was it so important for me to be lighter to be beautiful?”

Mixed foundation

The murky origin story behind the fair-skinned Asian beauty ideal

This higher value ascribed to light skin in varies cultures of color is a symptom of a larger system of discrimination and prejudice known as colorism. First coined by Alice Walker in 1982, colorism is prejudice and discrimination based on skin tone, usually in the context of when people of the same race or ethnicity devalue those within the group with darker skin. It’s distinctive from racism, which primarily operates between racial and ethnic groups.

It’s also important to note that dark skin among Asian Americans is considered comparatively light in black communities. While part of the larger system of oppression against darker-skinned people, colorism among Asians is a subcategory with a unique background and origin story.

Throughout history, pale skin in Asia has been placed on a pedestal as a signifier of higher class and wealth, but the roots of modern skin bleaching can also be traced to European imperialism, says Joanne Rondilla, a professor of sociology and Asian-American studies at San Jose State University and author of “Is Lighter Better? Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans.”

Tran's skin before taking pills to whiten her skin. Tran's skin while on her six month course of glutathione pills. (Courtesy: Han Tran)

“Lightness in Asia is not just informed by Eurocentric standards of beauty, but also East Asian standards of beauty that correlate with class and social status,” Rondilla says over the phone. For example, in the Philippines, the constant presence of a wealthy Chinese business class fueled the Filipino preoccupation with lighter skin tone alongside the system of racial hierarchy imposed by the Spanish, who colonized the Philippines for over 300 years.

Nevertheless, in “Is Lighter Better?”, Rondilla and her co-author Paul Spickard argue that the Asian Americans aspiring for lighter skin also hope to be seen as the “ideal Asian” in the eyes of white people, therefore indirectly buying into Eurocentric worldview of what Asian people should look like.

This rings true for 20-year-old Vietnamese American Han Tran, who bleaches her skin in hopes of looking “more Asian,” as she puts it. As a resident of the primarily white suburb of Arlington Heights in Chicago, Tran has few role models in her life for darker-skinned Asians.

“For me, it’s a combination of wanting to look more white and East Asian,” she says. “I want to look East Asian, but be perceived as more American.” Tran shudders at the thought of being considered “straight from Vietnam or Southeast Asia.”

“I have some Chinese friends at my university that have pale porcelain skin that I envy. I would like to have skin like that,” Tran says. For six months, Tran took glutathione skills she ordered online, stopping only when she could no longer afford to keep up the habit.

She religiously applies a complex skincare routine that uses hydroquinone, retinol and Vitamin C as well as special Korean “whitening masks.” By her estimate, Tran spends over $1000 a year on skin bleaching products alone in addition to other skincare products.

When asked embracing her natural skin tone, she retorts, “Well, don’t the majority of commercials or media depict light-skinned Asians? Isn’t that what the beauty standard is?”

True Colors

Dark-skinned Asians embrace brown skin

Though it’s true that Asians in the media tend to be light-skinned, Caday and Pangilinan would disagree with Tran’s resignation to the aesthetic status quo. Now aware of how colorism has influenced their conception of what is beautiful, they have both ditched skin bleaching products in favor of their natural, browner complexions after realizing in young adulthood how distorted their original perceptions of skin color were.

“When I got to college, I realized it’s so common for Filipinos to not feel good enough because of [Western] colonization. The idea is that we have to strive to be better in order to be just as good as white folks or East Asians,” Caday says, now a student at USC. After a decade of using skin bleaching products, she gave them up for good in her sophomore year.

Caday embraces her brown skin today after meeting other Filipinos at USC.

“The more I went down the rabbit hole of skin color, the more I realized a lot of aspects of Filipino beauty culture stemmed from self-hatred,” Caday explains. Beyond skin bleaching, she describes pinching her flat-bridged nose to make it look “more Spanish.”

Her Filipino American friends from home still use bleaching products, and she tries her best to dissuade them from conforming to a beauty standard that perpetuates the notion that darker skin is undesirable.

“I’ve tried to decolonize myself and my community in that sense, and be proud of my brown skin–one of the exterior things that identify me as Filipino,” she says.

Now older and able to stand up better for her ideals, Pangilinan confronts her family about their misguided beliefs about skin color. Though she’s unsure about how successful she’s been at changing their mindsets, Pangilinan hopes to set a good example for the next generation.

“My cousin [who is married to a Mexican man] just had a baby, and makes comments like, ‘Oh I hope my baby has lighter skin like her father,’” she says. “It’s times like that I try to plant seeds. I remind them that darker skin is okay.”

Caday and Pangilinan are two examples of the recent wave of people speaking out against colorism in their everyday lives and online. In 2017, black and Filipino American influencer Asia Jackson started the hashtag #MagandangMorenx to inspire a change in mindset about skin color among Filipinos around the world.

Pangilinan with her natural skin color in a recent photo. (Courtesy: Joey Anne Pangilinan)

By creating a dialogue about the prejudice against dark skin in Asian communities, influencers like Jackson and South Asian YouTuber Jovita George, who’s made multiple videos about colorism, hope to chip away at these longstanding and harmful beliefs. Their representation alone serves as a reminder to darker-skinned Asians in the U.S. and around the world that beauty doesn’t just look mixed with European or East Asian.

“Growing up, I never saw an Asian person in the media with dark skin,” says Caday, who looked up to light-skinned Asian beauty guru Michelle Phan in high school. Today, with follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, Jackson and George are capable of inspiring widespread change in attitudes towards darker skin.

These days, Joey Anne Pangilinan’s skin is tan and covered in freckles from the Southern California sun. She’s unpacked much of the internalized self-hatred from her adolescence, happy to be "moreno." Whenever her relatives, who are Catholic, try to make comments on her skin tone, Pangilinan replies, “That’s just the way God made me.”

“Our physical features are from our ancestors, no matter what tribe they are from. We should value and respect them instead of trying to alter them,” she says. Rather than trying to downplay her skin color and the indigenous heritage it signifies, Pangilinan has learned to accept and value her brownness.

“At the end of the day, even though we were born here, our blood will always be Filipino. No matter how many times we try to change our physical appearances, at the root of it we’ll always be Filipino.”

Seafood City in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown.