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One of the fastest growing sectors of the beauty industry, is also one of its most controversial:
Skin Bleaching.
She will do the buying.
When the color of your skin can determine your future, how far would you go to be lighter?
Having light skin, I think it is important here.
Skin tone matters, nowadays.
And they prefer the white ones.
When I was younger, they would always call me, "pretty, but...
Pretty but dark."
Whatever that fair girl embodies in my head is just someone that is just a little better than me.
Skin bleaching, also known as skin lightening or whitening, is a global market expected
to grow to over 24 billion dollars in the next decade.
Advertisements pedaling products can be seen across the globe.
Asia holds the lion's share of the market, and at the heart of it lies the Philippines,
with one of the highest rates of use in the world.
The Philippines is a country on the economic rise, and its new money fuels the possibility
of rapid social mobility.
One of the most popular strategies to get a leg up is skin bleaching.
But at what cost?
It's estimated that 1-in-2 Filipinos have tried skin whitening products.
I wanted to understand why, so I went to meet someone who's shaping the face of beauty,
not only in the Philippines, but across the world.
Dr Vicki Belo.
It's almost a status symbol, like having a Hermes bag.
It just sounds so politically incorrect that I'm having a hard time.
She's a celebrity dermatologist who's built a skin lightening empire.
What kind of treatments do you do here for whitening?
We do scrubs, lasers, wet and dry dermabrasion, capsules, intravenous.
So we treat it from the inside, we treat it from the outside.
My motto is to make the Philippines the most beautiful country in the world.
And for many, that means skin whitening.
Today what do you want to do?
Your usual drip?
Your Cinderella drip?
One of the most popular procedures here is an IV drip.
Lean back.
Are you okay?
Are you comfortable?
So we are about to see the Cinderella drip, which is a mix of glutathione and Vitamin C.
The star ingredient, glutathione, is a controversial antioxidant to lighten the skin
from the inside out.
It hasn't been approved for cosmetic use by the FDA.
Still, Dr. Belo's clients are willing to drop hundreds of dollars per session, taking
on the risk, in hopes of getting whiter.
I've done some Hollywood celebrities.
People coming in from London!
While off label glutathione requires more research, Dr. Belo argues that it's at least
being done under medical supervision.
I think you really get what you pay for.
Cause some people, they just go for price.
People actually risk their lives, just to get whiter.
Things that are coming contain mercury in the creams.
That's really destructive.
That's really poisonous, actually.
Videos online and in the news have emerged showing harmful side effects for some of these products.
Across the Philippines, women have reported signs of mercury poisoning.
The culprit: cheap whitening creams that often sell for a little over a dollar.
I wanted to know what these products were, and why people would risk using them for paler skin.
It's a serious concern.
These kind of cheap skin whitening creams, you can buy it everywhere.
There's one man fighting this issue on the front lines: Thony Dizon,
an activist at Ecowaste Coalition.
We discover that skin lightening is a product that has a mercury concentration and that
there is a risk.
A variety of ingredients can be used for skin whitening.
The basic idea is to slow melanin production.
The less melanin, the lighter your skin.
Vitamin C, hydroquinone and kojic acid are some of the most common ones.
But one of the cheapest and deadliest is mercury, a heavy metal that can be toxic for humans,
even in tiny doses.
Repeated exposure, like smearing it on your face every day, can lead to tremors, kidney
failure and even birth defects.
So mercury isn't just an incidental contaminant, it's actually what's bleaching your skin?
It's a serious concern.
A public health concern.
I couldn't believe these products were on the market.
It turns out, they aren't.
Because they're so toxic, these mercury laced creams are banned by the government.
But they're still flooding into the country at an alarming rate.
And the reason behind it is shocking.
Some customs people would hate me for this.
Customs employees are in collusion with the smuggling.
What do you mean in collusion with the smugglers?
They know that these containers contain beauty products and they just let them slip through
and they receive some bribes.
It's a culture in the bureau that it is immoral to let drugs and fire arms slip through customs.
But beauty products don't seem to fall under that?
No.
In fact some have this perception that they are helping Filipinos improve their appearance.
It's almost like the culture around skin bleaching allows for this proliferation of
illegal bleaching creams.
Yes, definitely.
It's baffling.
But customs agents actually think that they're doing people a favor by allowing cheap creams
with mass appeal to hit the market, since few can afford high end treatments.
It makes for an uphill battle for Thony, but he's determined to crack down on this illegal activity.
I'm riding along on an undercover buy, on the condition that I stay in the car, and
protect his colleague's identity.
What we're gonna do is we're gonna put a hidden camera on her.
She will do the buying.
So the hidden camera has been positioned in her bag and it's pointing directly outwards
and she's going to wear her bag on the front.
She's mic'd up and they have a couple different people standing throughout the market
who are both safety and to capture different angles.
Alright, so they just did the undercover buy and let's look at some of the products that
you got.
Armed with these creams, the next step is to take them back to test just how dangerous
they are.
But why do people take these risks at all?
Do you think that people who were buying the products, like in that store for example,
know how dangerous they are?
What do you think about all the whitening products?
Skin whitening products that I used were glutathione pills, papaya soaps, whitening soaps and lotions.
They're not looking to be white like a white person, they're just looking to be lighter
skinned because historically that's what they perceive as not only beautiful, but also
powerful.
For more than 400 years, the Philippines was ruled by one foreign power or another.
Spain, the United States, and even Japan for a brief period of time.
The Japanese occupation was celebrated by the invaders with a parade through the center
of the city.
The island nation finally declared its independence in 1946.
But centuries of outside rule have shaped beauty standards to prize pale skin.
It's a legacy that's very much alive today.
Charlene is one Filipina who attributes much of her success to her skin tone.
She's an influencer with over 200,000 followers.
Hold that, looking great.
My instagram, there are a lot of countries following me.
They are like, “Oh you look so great, your skin is so fair.”
In the Philippines if you have fair or lighter skin, you're more prettier, you're more
beautiful and you have a lot of advantages.
Like many Filipinas, Charlene's beauty routine includes a daily whitening regimen.
I have morning and I have evening routine.
So this is cortisone soap.
I'm using this for six years now.
And you use it all over your body and your face.
Yes, I use it on my body, I use it on my face.
So I drink this once a day before I sleep.
It looks like this.
And in the morning I feel my skin gets glowy.
So the day I don't whiten my skin, I gave birth to a dark beautiful baby girl.
And I don't want my daughter to feel the same insecurity that I went through.
People lighten their skin just to increase their attractiveness to the opposite sex.
I was starting to understand.
Skin whitening is pervasive in the Philippines because for so many people, it represents
the opportunity for something more.
Skin tone isn't just about skin.
It is about class.
Everybody that uses these products are very clear about the economic benefit.
That far outweighs any risk.
Back at the Ecowaste headquarters, I'm about to find out just how much risk there is.
Why are you putting gloves on?
Ah, yes.
Because this product has chemical so you don't want to expose.
Especially because I will be touching the product.
And at the same time we open up the windows since we suspected that this product has mercury.
This is a point and shoot device.
The screen will show the concentration of mercury.
So I have sort of an idea of what these numbers mean, what are the legal limits of mercury
in these products.
For our country, it has a limit of one part per million.
One part per million.
Okay.
Yes.
This cream here is this bright yellow, almost custard-y consistency.
Trying to hold my breath.
Now you will see.
Wow, so this is over four times the legal limit.
More than, more than.
It's 42,000.
This isn't in percent, so if you were going to convert it times one hundred or times
one thousand, this is 42,000.
This is way, way beyond.
I thought that it was shocking that it was four times the amount that was allowed, it's
42,000 times the amount.
Thony and I tested every cream they bought.
Way beyond the limit.
Jar after jar contained mercury at illegal and alarming levels.
This is a little bit lower, but it still has mercury.
So these products here are banned, they're illegal.
But we just bought them today.
Is that safe to say then that they are still being imported, they are still being smuggled in.
Exactly.
With results from our testing in hand, Thony's come to Quezon city hall to demand they remove
these products from the streets.
We don't want this situation to worsen up.
We don't want to hear any more victims of this mercury exposure.
What is at stake with the work that you're doing?
It is very important in the country because nobody does it.
Ecowaste is the only one doing this.
The reality is, people in the Philippines and across the globe will continue to use
skin whitening products and until the culture that privileges lighter skin changes, it's
people like Thony, who look out for consumers to make sure products are safe.
We've been out here for a few hours waiting for Thony, waiting on the news of whether
or not the government's actually going to take action to try to seize all of these really
toxic illegal products.
Ahh!
We got it!
The meeting was a success.
Wow!
So what happened?
We got the support of all the agencies who will do the law enforcement action.
So because of your investigation, they're now looking into it and you're going to
get these products off the street?
Yes and we will still continue!
Victory.
Yes, victory moment!
It may seem like a small step, but Thony's tireless work makes the world of beauty a
little bit safer.
And that progress is something to root for.
Thanks for watching Refinery29.
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Why People Risk Their Lives To Bleach Their Skin | Shady | Refinery29

75 Folder Collection
Angus published on July 12, 2020
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