In the West, tan – or dark – skin is considered attractive and is often highly coveted by both men and women. The first Westerners sporting tans were vacationers coming back from expensive cruises in the early part of the 20th century, and a darker skin tone quickly became associated with wealth and prestige.
In much of Asia, however, it’s another story. Pale skin is so sought after among women that some have even damaged their skin though overuse of dubious whitening products. And despite news stories reporting deaths from the application of such products, many women still use them.
Luy Kunthea, 25, said, “I think black skin is not beautiful and not attractive. Most of my friends are really interested in white skin. There are many methods that they try to bleach their skin. For me, I like white skin too, and I try to follow what they recommend by using products that can remove black skin.”
She added that though she is aware of the potential hazards of whitening products, she won’t stop using them because “there are a lot of people who keep doing it and I haven’t noticed that they quit using [whitening products].”
Skin whitening creams are also big business. While some are manufactured by reputable companies, others are simply sold, unregulated, by vendors on the market. Some vendors take manufactured products and add other substances, such as bleach.
Em Reaksmey, 17, said that though she wants fairer skin, she is wary of the potential effects of skin whitening creams. “Before I made a decision to bleach my skin, I was concerned about the effect of it as well. Though I knew that the product I use is not reliable, I keep using it even though I already have white skin.”
For many Cambodians, judgments surrounding skin colour run deep. Oul Vannet, 19, said, “The boy judges a girl like a book; if it does not catch their eye, they do not bother to look what it has inside. It can make me more attractive if I have white skin. I spend a lot in order to make my skin white.”
But some disagree. Pen Bros noted, “I think if I take a look at a beautiful girl, that is true that their white skin always catches my attention. But if I had a girlfriend or wife, it is not that important because I know that they will have a lot of chance to confront with the risks in the future.”
Natural products are another means of taking care of one’s skin, and they often carry fewer risks. Some apply natural products such as tamarind, turmeric, egg and milk to their skin.
Some young people, however, are not content with only a natural method. Men Chanmotita, 22, is a senior at Setec University. “I use both chemical and natural products, but I often use natural products because I could save money and they’re convenient,” she said.
“For an example, I use an egg to apply to my face. After I use it, I noticed that it make my skin firm and moist than before. You can try it as well.”
Eourt Srey Mom, a cosmetics seller at a local market, said, “Most of the youth prefer products for white skin. The whitening lotion is the best-selling product for my shop. Most of these creams are also quite expensive.”
She went on: “[The health concerns] don’t matter as long as people use the product that is the original product from the company, as those are examined and recognised by the Ministry of Health before being distributed to the market.” Problems occur, she said, when vendors blend different brands of product together and add other substances.