You can look like a vampire: skin whitening horror stories from the streets of Bangkok
Lured by the promise of pearl-white complexions in ads on social media, young women in Thailand fall for cheap creams said to have herbal ingredients but full of toxic mercury, which cause acne, blotches and spidery red veins
Achara Chairak wanted to look prettier and that, she believed, included having light skin. The lighter the better.
The Bangkok office worker tried some brand-name whitening creams sold at pharmacy chains, but they didn’t make much difference to her skin tone. So last year she decided to try one of the creams sold online that promised more dramatic results.
The facial cream, the ads claimed, contained traditional herbal ingredients and would produce lasting changes in lightening skin tone. “Before and after” pictures showed women with dark complexions metamorphose into beauties with fair skin.
“At first my skin got visibly whiter and brighter,” says Achara, who is in her late twenties. “I was very happy.”
She began buying more of the cream and using it several times a day. That’s when her troubles started. Her skin started to feel irritated and itchy, sensitive to sunlight, and papery to the touch.
Soon, her face erupted in acne. Spidery red veins became visible on her cheeks as clusters of dilated capillaries began showing through her skin. Discoloured blotches also appeared on her face, a condition known medically as melasma.
Achara developed an allergic reaction to the cream that turned out to contain not herbal extracts but ammoniated mercury,a highly toxic chemical once used in disinfectants.
She has sought medical treatment, but some of the damage to her skin is permanent.
Once she was an outgoing woman who loved dolling herself up, but now Achara is unassuming and withdrawn. She wears her hair in bangs and rarely goes outdoors without wearing oversized sunglasses to try to hide her skin condition.
“I’ve been suffering a lot emotionally,” she says. “I still can’t really look in the mirror.”
Her case is hardly unique.
In Thailand, white skin is almost universally seen as a key feature of feminine beauty. Models featured in advertisements all have pearl-white complexions, as do starlets and popular soap opera actors.
In the country’s status-conscious society, fair skin is also deemed to denote class and refinement. “White skin is seen as a mark of higher social status,” observes Suwirakorn Ophaswongse, an assistant professor of dermatology at Bangkok’s Srinakharinwirot University who is also a practising clinician. “Darker skin has traditionally been associated with rice farmers and labourers who work in the sun.”
Skin whitening is a lucrative business in the country where beauty clinics proliferate and skin-whiteners account for more than half of the sales in facial creams. Statistics show that local sales of skincare and personal-care products amount to billions of US dollars a year.
Yet for many local women, especially those who can’t afford pricier beauty products and services, quick fixes in the form of under-the-counter creams and supplements whose labels promise to turn them fair-skinned almost overnight can come at a cost to their health and looks.
Numerous Thai women have suffered a range of conditions, from eczema to hyperpigmentation – in many cases permanently – after using cheap whitening creams that are offered for sale on social media and at street markets. “These creams are everywhere,” Suwirakorn notes. “You can even buy them at a flea market in my own area [in central Bangkok].”
Most of these products are manufactured by unlicensed operators in small factories and home-based labs, or else are imported from countries such as China.
“To make facial creams and body lotions, all you need is a small mixer,” Suwirakorn says. “And you can’t tell what’s been put in the creams just by looking at them.”
In recent years Thai authorities have raided several small local labs and factories found to be using banned chemicals in their skin-whitening, weight-loss and personal-care products. Yet many other fly-by-night operators continue churning out unsafe whitening creams and lotions, as well as an endless variety of subpar supplements and cosmetics.
In April, Thai police closed down Magic Skin Co, an operation run by a husband-and-wife team who had been flooding the local market with bogus whitening creams and supplements. The couple, who had hired several Thai celebrities to promote their products, raked in a reported 290 million baht (US$8.8 million) in sales.
The street vendors who sell “natural” whitening creams of dubious provenance are invariably young women who have no training in pharmaceuticals. Most of them are probably unaware of what is in the products they’re peddling to their equally unwitting customers.
“It’s 100 per cent concentrated ginseng,” a petite, bubbly young woman says of the contents of little, low-grade plastic jars with pink and green stick-on labels she sells at a hole-in-the-wall shop called All Herb, near Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
“This one is the original formula,” she says, indicating a jar with a pink label. It costs 300 baht. “The other one has a different concentration of ginseng, but it’s also effective.”
Both types of the cream are popular with buyers, she says. “Many of my customers are using them,” the vendor explains. “They’re very happy with the results.”
Quite a few customers clearly aren’t happy, though. In Facebook comments women with buyer’s remorse often warn others of the harm they’ve suffered from using whitening products that are claimed to contain extracts of innocuous natural substances: ginseng, green tea, seaweed, Asiatic pennywort, cucumber, aloe vera.
In fact, say researchers at Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the main ingredient in many of these products is mercury. The heavy metal can temporarily suppress melanin production, thereby causing the skin to turn lighter within days or weeks. In centuries past, mercury was used in cosmetics to remove freckles, age spots and other blemishes.
Even in low concentrations, however, mercury can permanently damage the skin and cause severe health problems, including acute kidney ailments and impairments to the nervous system. Last year a 35-year-old woman in the northern Thai province of Phrae died of kidney failure after using “herbal” whitening creams and supplements she had bought online.
More than 840 whitening creams sold without approval from Thailand’s FDA have been tested and catalogued by its researchers. Many of them have been found to contain high concentrations of mercury and other potentially harmful ingredients including hydroquinone, a derivative of benzene that can cause blue-black pigmentation.
Tests showed that one product, sold under the name FC Rice Milk Cream, had a mercury content of 99,070 ppm (parts per million). Another two products, White Rose Sheep Placenta Cream and Meiyong Seaweed Herbal Cream, had mercury contents of 51,600 ppm and 41,770 ppm, respectively. By comparison, in the US the legal limit for mercury in skincare products is 1 ppm, while in many other countries no mercury at all is allowed in such products.
Many of the toxic skin-whiteners and other dangerous whitening products, such as acid-laced skin-peeling masks, are hawked online by young female social media influencers called “pretties”. These beauty-obsessed young women use their own good looks to target other women with their sales pitches.
“My products are definitely safe,” one of them responded to a query in a private online message. “You don’t have to worry.”
Yet you’d better worry.
The labels on some whitening creams proclaim they contain exotic ingredients such as “horse oil”, snail slime and coral extract. Other creams, their sellers assert, have the ability to alter biological reality by lowering the melanin content in users’ skin.
“You have dark skin because of your genes,” a Facebook page for one cream notes. “Stop wasting your money on worthless whitening creams. Try our cream. It will turn a (biological) light switch on for your skin.”
Some sellers venture into macabre territory. One low-grade skin-bleaching concoction is called Vampire, and the online ad for it tells prospective customers that they will turn “as white as a vampire”.
Another is called Blood Vessel and comes with the claim that users’ skin will become so pasty their veins will be clearly visible.
Other products are being sold with faked endorsements from prestigious Thai medical schools or prominent Thai medical professionals.
“This happens all the time,” Suwirakorn laments. “It’s very difficult to root these things out. We can’t control social media and direct sales. You can imagine the scale of the problem,” the dermatologist says. “People like beauty and many want it fast regardless of the potential consequences.”
Despite her medical troubles, even Achara still believes in the benefits of some whitening creams. She thinks she has just been unlucky in choosing a bad product. “Women want to be beautiful,” she stresses. “And to be beautiful, you need to have white skin.”