SKII, lower right, with other skin whiteners in Sorya mall.
Pick your way through the labyrinth of narrow, dank passages carpeted with litter
at varying stages of decomposition, and you might manage to find Stall 45 in Phnom
Penh's Psar Kandal.
Hair straighteners snap purposefully, nails are painted, and eyebrows carefully shaved
as a bevy of women beautify in anticipation of the evening ahead.
But behind the standard pampering lurks the more alchemical side of Phnom Penh's
plethora of tiny, ramshackle beauty salons like Stall 45: skin-whitening treatments.
"You have to mix up all the powders and leave them on your skin for two-and-a-half
hours," said Sophal, a Stall 45 regular. "It feels like your skin is burning;
it is really painful."
Large jars of pale orange powder line the walls of Stall 45 giving the tiny space
the air of an apothecary. The jars are unlabeled, and no one is able to confirm exactly
what the powder is made of. But they all testify to its efficacy.
"I shed my skin like a snake," Sophal said. "It really makes your
skin much lighter."
Long strands of dead skin trail from the arms of one girl who has recently had the
treatment. Though she professes herself pleased with the results, the process is
known to cause photosensitivity and other skin problems.
"After some women do this, if they are not careful and go in the sun they will
burn really easily," Sophal said. "You can also get red spots or dark patches
on your skin."
Enduring burning skin for several hours and risking photosensitivity in pursuit of
pallor may seem bizarre to the average Westerner, but white skin has long been highly
prized across Asia, said Dr Reid Sheftall of the American Medical Center.
"People just want to look whiter all over," he said. "The companies
sell tons of products [as white skin] is a sign of aristocracy, especially in countries
like Cambodia where the natural skin tone is darker."
Khmer people prefer lighter skin. "Ah Khmao"- meaning "Little Darky"
- is a frequently used derogatory nickname in Cambodia. Sophal said girls with light
skin are considered more beautiful, which makes it easier to find a husband.
As a result of such cultural conceptions of beauty, the market for whitening products
is vast. And now Cambodia's market stall treatments have to compete with multinational
corporations eager to cash in on the Khmer penchant for pale skin.
"Most Asian women prefer white skin," said Frank Yee, country manager of
Goodhill Enterprises, the Cambodian distributor of multinational pharmaceutical giant
Proctor and Gamble's products. "Being pale makes them feel that they have a
good complexion and that they look younger. A lot of people are brown [skinned] in
Cambodia and so they will use whitening creams."
Proctor and Gamble are targeting Cambodia's vast and ever-expanding youth market
with an affordable range of whitening products.
"In Cambodia we sell Olay Total White," Yee said. "Whitening products
are very marketable, and Cambodia's population is very young. The 17- to-25-year-old
age group is a huge market and that is who we are trying to appeal to with our whitening
The products are cheap, just 1,000 riel for a sachet of whitening lotion, and are
being aggressively marketed.
"Olay is a very well-respected brand and we are trying to reach the mass market,"
Yee said. "We broadcast advertisements on CTN and TV5 and we design special
promotions to create the impulse to purchase our product in shops."
But whether whitening treatments manufactured by multinationals are safer than the
concoctions of power on offer in Psar Kandal remains debatable.
The active ingredients of the Olay Total White range are sunscreens (zinc and titanium)
and vitamin E, which will not damage, nor dramatically whiten, the skin.
But Olay's owners, Proctor and Gamble, recently found themselves embroiled in a storm
of controversy over the safety of their whitening products.
Chinese regulators last month found traces of two toxic metals, chromium and neodymium,
in nine SKII products, a high-end cosmetics brand owned by Proctor and Gamble. Three
of these products claim to whiten skin.
Chromium is carcinogenic and can cause eczema, neodymium can cause eye and skin irritation.
Proctor and Gamble withdrew the products from the market pending a probe by a Chinese
health and safety watchdog.
The problem is, experts say, that unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which are regulated
and need to pass trials proving their efficacy and safety before they reach the market,
there is little regulation of cosmetics even in more developed Asian countries.
In Cambodia there are laws to regulate the sale of prescription drugs, enacted in
1996, although attempts to enforce them have always ended in failure: illegal pharmacies
selling drugs in an unregulated fashion abound.
"There are some Ministry of Health guidelines regarding cosmetics," said
Yee. "But we have never had any problems with them."
Ung Phyrun, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Health (MoH), said he was too busy
to answer questions on MoH regulations for cosmetics.
SKII is not imported by Goodhill as it is considered too high-end for the Cambodian
market, but the now-unavailable-in-China products are easy to find in Sorya mall
- with prices ranging from $80 to $170.
"We import it from Singapore," said the sales representative at Forever
shop in Sorya mall. "It is selling quite well."
But the health costs of even these high-end whitening creams could be far higher
than their financial price tag.
The recent SKII outcry is only the latest in an ongoing series of scientific denouncements
of the safety of whitening products.
Experts have previously found unacceptably high levels of mercury - a potentially
deadly substance that helps to keep skin white - in a number of skin-whitening cosmetics.
In 2000, a study of 38 whitening creams carried out by Christopher Lam, a professor
of chemical pathology at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, found eight of the
creams contained excessive amounts of mercury.
Mercury blocks an enzyme that is required for the formation of melanin, the dark
pigment in skin. Prolonged exposure to mercury can be lethal as it attacks the central
nervous system and can result in brain and kidney damage.
When even high-end whitening products produced by multinational corporations are
found to have potentially lethal chemicals involved, one cannot but wonder exactly
what Stall 45 is pasting on its customers' skin.
Although there are a huge number of products on the market in Cambodia, Dr Sheftall
is uncertain of the efficacy or safety of any of them.
"There are lots of over-the-counter creams that don't do much and are largely
an advertising ploy," he said. "There are certain products that do have
an effect, for example Retin A, which can lighten darker spots on the skin, and then
there are products which just literally bleach the skin."
Back at Stall 45 health risks are secondary to the pursuit of pallor. For Sophal,
the adage "One must suffer to be beautiful" rings true.
"Khmer men prefer white-skinned ladies," she said. "Lots of Cambodian
women use the whitening powder on their skin even though it is a difficult beauty
treatment because they like white skin - it looks beautiful."