Tanning vs. Skin Whitening

Tanning is wildly popular in many Western countries. But in some Asian and African countries, fair skin is a sign of wealth. But both can be dangerous — and even deadly.

How skin whitening became a trend in some countries

Skin tone ideals are different in various cultures. In several African and Asian countries, to be attractive, you have to have white skin. In Bangkok, one hospital even performs penis and vulva whitening. Many skin-whitening products are sold in Asia: lotions, soaps and pills. White skin isn’t just a beauty standard — it’s also a visible sign of wealth. In several Asian countries, dark skin is associated with poverty, the working class and farm labor.

In 2014, Maeya became Miss Thailand World. One of the most-discussed qualities of Maeya is her beautiful tan skin, which some netizens hope marks a change in Thailand’s pageant culture, where fair skin and a Eurasian heritage have often proved an advantage. But in African countries, most of skin lightening products contain mercury, which can cause kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring according the World Health Organization. Mercury-containing creams and soaps were banned in the U.S., the E.U., and many African nations. But it resulted in a thriving black market.

On the other hand, in Western cultures, tanning is fashionable. The trend for whiteness halted after the industrial revolution. Its corollary urbanization of Britain meant that by the 19th century, the working classes had moved into the shadows. They lived in cramped dwellings and worked in mines and factories. Any leisure time available was taken indoors, to avoid the smog and soot of the streets. Children developed rickets and other bone deformities and, by 1890, Theobald Palm recognized that sunlight was crucial for bone development. Despite strong evidence of carcinogenicity, despite increasing skin cancer rates, and despite harrowing stories of young people dying, the U.S. lags behind many countries in the regulation of tanning beds. Based on reports from the World Health Organization, prolonged UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds can lead to skin cancer.