Lost in translation: Whitening

People often whisper about Asian ideals of beauty to be more “white”.  I have LOTS to say on this matter. But today, I will focus on one frequently misunderstood term: whitening.

The most important thing to know about whitening skincare products, at least among Asian beauty options, is that it does not mean skin bleaching.  From my day jab experience in marketing, I can appreciate the confusion.

For instance, when you think about ‘whitening’ and dental care, it means exactly that: dental products that literally make your teeth look whiter.  And for the most part, that is the type of ‘whitening’ that is most prevalent in mainstream.  While whitening skin products are almost a sub-culture even among skincare aficionados.

If I had to guess, I suspect the term ‘whitening’ in relation to skincare derives from literal translation, not figurative.  When I first moved to the states and was learning English, I would often scoff at translations done in media because in my young, smarty-pants mind, they had it all wrong.  But of course, they had it right, because they opted to choose words to represent the intent and meaning, rather than linguistic definition.

Back to the matter at hand of whitening skin products such as Tony Moly’s too-cute Magic Panda Cream (not its official name, but wouldn’t you rather put Magic Panda Cream on your face than White Magic Cream? No?  Well, I would.) and Mizon White Sleeping Mask or even Tosowoong Whitening Cream.  The list is endless.

Tony Moly: Panda’s Dream White Magic Cream


Tosowoong Whitening Cream


These products don’t actually make your skin look whiter.  What they really do is to lighten dark spots and even out skin tones.  So in a literal sense, they do whiten somewhat.  But among their counterpart “western” beauty products, the common term used to tout same benefits is: brightening. Online K-beauty retailer Peach and Lily had a great post on this last year that I still read from time to time (https://www.peachandlily.com/blogs/news/50376645-fight-hyperpigmentation-with-brightening-products).

Bottom line, don’t be so quick to dismiss these whitening skincare products as evidence of Asian women wanting to ‘look white’.  Take care to look at the product details and ingredients.  You might be surprised at how universally appealing the benefits are.  If anything, blame it on poor translation.

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