Thailand’s latest skin-whitening fad might be the most disturbing one yet

An advertisement in Thailand for a skin-whitening product.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Asia’s skin-whitening industrial complex never stops innovating.

The latest product? A chemical goop for women (and men) unhappy with the color of their limbs. Simply slather it all over your arms and legs. Wait a week. Then peel back your skin to reveal the milky white you are hiding beneath all that pigment.

It looks about as pleasant as it sounds.

Here’s an instructional video in which skin sloughs off a young woman’s forearm in translucent sheets. It may look familiar to anyone who’s endured severe sun poisoning.

Asia’s supermarket shelves are filled with a dizzying variety of skin-whitening agents. Many in Asia are as obsessed with lightening their skin as westerners are about tanning it.

The product lines go far beyond lotions and pills. There are skin-whitening injections. Armpit-whitening deodorants sold at 7-Eleven outlets. A heavily advertised “whitening feminine wash” for female genitals.

This isn’t a fringe market. One research firm predicts that the “global skin lightener” industry — powered by transnational conglomerates such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble — will be worth $23 billion by 2020.

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As for goops that cause skin peeling? Most don’t really work, according to Sumali Pongjibrasan, an expert with Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration, who was interviewed by a Thai TV channel when the fad emerged last year.

“In reality, these skin-peeling solutions are just chemicals that have a temporary effect,” she said. “The only solutions that have permanent effects use banned substances. And they’re very dangerous.”

For a lengthy analysis of Asia’s skin-whitening obsession, written by a Thai female author, check out this article: “Thailand’s skin whitening craze: How far will it go?

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