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Whitening Cream Warnings Compete With Cultural Desire for Lighter Skin

A Bangkok cosmetics sales clerk looks on near a large ad for skin whitening cream. With rising incomes, more and more Asians are turning to products to lighten their skin color, and cosmetics giants are cashing in. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

A 2013 research showed that six of 14 skin-whitening creams had levels of mercury higher than allowed in Asean or the US.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Health is warning the public to beware many skin whitening creams, which have been found to have high levels of mercury in them. Whitening is a common practice in Cambodia, for both men and women, in a culture where lighter skin is often idealized. And that can make it hard to get the message across.

Still, Health Minister Mam Bunheng says whitening cream can be dangerous, and many counterfeit products are now on the market, making the practice even more dubious.

Interviews with everyday Cambodians in Phnom Penh show that such warnings will have a hard time competing with advertising for whitening products—and the desire for lighter-toned skin.

In a classy coffee shop in Phnom Penh, 19-year-old Bun Sokdany was enjoying an iced latte with friends. She said she whitened her skin for about two and a half years. “Before, my skin was not beautiful, so I was not happy with it,” she said in a soft voice. “I used to feel very upset with my tanned skin.”

She heard about a whitening formula from a radio advertisement. “I heard that it helps whiten the skin in just three days,” she said. “They interviewed their customers and they said the result was great and did not harm their skin. So I decided to use it. From the first, I could sense that my skin was becoming white, quickly.”

Such formulas, which mix whitening cream with other vitamins and chemicals, has long been popular in Cambodia. Such products are sometimes banned in other countries, and even here they are not certified by the Ministry of Health, which is seeking to crack down on some products.

Such creams “are produced without the right standards,” said Chan Vicheth, a dermatologist at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital. “It is mixed and created by local sellers who do not care about the side effects or any harm to their users in the future.”

Some patients who come to him show signs of dangerous chemicals, such as mercury or salicylic acid, in their creams, he said.

In 2013, research by Camcontrol in Phnom Penh, backed by Sweden’s Umea University, showed six of 14 skin-whitening creams had levels of mercury higher than allowed in Asean or the US. One cream had mercury in it 30,000 times higher than the allowed amount in developed countries.

Mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.

But Camcontrol Deputy Director-General Dim Theng told VOA Khmer that mercury can cause dangerous side effects, “like fatigue, nervousness and irritability, severe headache, insomnia, memory loss, loss of strength, tingling or burning sensation, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy. Sometimes, it is even threatening to their life.”

Still, such creams, often produced in Thailand or Vietnam, are readily for sale in Cambodian markets. They are also increasingly available online, or via social media. A tiny jar costs $3, making it affordable to the youth—where legitimate skin cream might cost up to $30.

Bun Sokdany said she bought a more expensive jar, $35 for half a kilogram of cream, whose seller told her she would see results by the time she used all of it. Some of her friends, meanwhile, buy creams and mix them, at the advice of relatives, or even vendors, but she has never done that.

Meanwhile, Camcontrol and the Ministry of Health are working to get rid of counterfeit products, Dim Theng said. However, that can be hard, because they usually only hear about a product when something goes wrong—either someone files a complaint or sues a vendor. When that happens, Camcontrol will seize the products, and burn them, he said. “However, we are not those who identify which ones are authorized and which ones aren’t,” he said. “That’s the Ministry of Health’s responsibility.”

​In October, the ministry announced on Facebook a new warning about skin-whitening cream. Mam Bunheng called for an end to the buying and selling of dangerous products. But people keep selling it, and people keep buying it.

Chhouen Khemra, a vendor near Boeung Keng Koag, said health officials occasionally inspect her products, but generally just for expiration dates. “I’ve heard them mention closing businesses that sell mixed skin-whitening products, but I have never seen them do anything,” she said. “We cannot stop selling it, because our customers still need it.”

Bun Sokdany said she quit using skin-whitening cream, following advice from a dermatologist—and another important influencer: “My mom also warned me about it.”