Pale Asian models peer from the pages of glossy magazines, pout on billboards, ride on white horses in cinema advertisements and jostle for counter space at the local department store.
They tout products such as Blanc Expert, White-Plus, WhiteLight, Future White Day, Blanc Purete, Fine Fairness, Active White, White Perfect and Snow UV.
Spurred on by modern marketing and a cultural history that cherishes fairness, hordes of women across Asia are slapping on whitening lotions, serums, correctors and essences to bleach their skins.
But at what price?
In what may be the biggest toxic cream outbreak ever, 1,262 people flocked to a hotline set up by Hong Kong’s health department last week, after warnings that two whitener creams — Rosedew and La Rose Blanche — had mercury levels between 9,000 and 65,000 times the recommended dose.
A survey by Asia Market Intelligence this year revealed that three quarters of Malaysian men thought their partners would be more attractive with lighter complexions.
In Hong Kong two thirds of men prefer fairer skin, while half the local women wanted their men paler. Almost half of Asians aged 25 to 34 years used skin whiteners in a business that some analysts have said could be worth billions of dollars.
‘Lighten and brighten’
As cosmetic giants around the world jump onto this lucrative Asian obsession, women in the region face an enormous array of ways to brighten, whiten, lighten and illuminate their yellow-toned skins.
In December 2000, Lam and Prince of Wales Hospital doctor Michael Chan tested 36 creams made by cosmetic makers across the world.
They found eight creams exceeded US FDA safety limits for mercury. All eight brands came from China or Taiwan, prompting Lam to predict this could be “the tip of the iceberg” because the creams have been available for several years and widely used.
When Lam phoned one Chinese supplier, he was told: “What is wrong with a little mercury in the cream, as long as it can make ladies beautiful.”
While mercury was considered a strong and effective whitening agent ten to twenty years ago, in high doses it is lethal.
It is so toxic and dangerous that when workers used mercury to make felt hats in the 1800s, the psychiatric changes it triggered, led observers to call them as “mad-as-a-hatter.”
“Mercury is very harmful to the central nervous system and kidney, particularly the developing brain of a foetus and young child ” says Lam.
“It can lead to convulsions, coma and death.”