Why People Risk Their Lives To Bleach Their Skin | Shady | Refinery29


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. For more videos like this, click here. And to subscribe, click here.

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