Why Do Chinese Women Paint Their Faces White?

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Pale skin is a long-coveted sign of beauty in China, and skin whitening is an $18 billion-a-year industry in Asia. Although there are many modern companies competing in the industry, skin whitening is a tradition that dates back to the Han dynasty. Traditionally farmers and laborers had tan skin, so the upper-classes donned white facial makeup to display their status. The association between fair skin and wealth remains today.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, women applied red lipstick and white powder to their faces to have a pure white facial appearance. This look is no longer common on the streets, but it still can be seen in the Chinese Opera. In modern China, many women keep their skin light by liberally applying sunscreen, using umbrellas on sunny days, and wearing face masks at the beach. Skin lightening is also common. In a recent survey, 40 percent of women in China, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan said they have used a skin lightener in the past year. Dermatologists offer facial peels and laser treatments, which aim to lighten the skin. In addition, there are many pills and herbal concoctions on the market which promise to help lighten the skin. Such companies have received criticism for their unsubstantiated claims and potential health risks.