We are rapidly approaching 100 days since we began our Asia adventure. 100 days is long enough to begin running out of the things we packed, particularly sunscreen and moisturizer. While Thailand’s beautiful islands have tons of places that offer these two products side by side in the skin care aisle, finding suitable replacements for the products we take for granted at home has been difficult, and shopping for them has shed light on a critical cultural difference between the West and the East.
Thailand’s beaches are first-class. The sand is fine and white, the water is warm and clean, and the beaches have all the amenities of home, like beach-side bars, chairs and umbrellas for those who just want to read and not burn. Westerners around here, however, don’t take advantage of the ample shade opportunities, so the beaches are packed with toasted Europeans – Russians, Italians, Spaniards, English, German, and Swedish people of all varying shades of red. Those who aren’t burned to a crisp are leathery, pre-cancerous humans, walking public service announcements for the harmful effects of long-term sun exposure. It’s enough to make you run to the nearest 7-Eleven for the highest SPF sunblock available.
Unfortunately, finding sunscreen is much harder in Asia because Asians don’t use it. In Laos and Vietnam, it was non-existent, even in huge supermarkets. Thailand is only slightly better. The sunscreen that you find in Asia is there almost exclusively for tourists, so the prices are ridiculous (we have been paying roughly what we spend in the US, so too much), and the SPFs are frighteningly low. And since we all want to be tan, most of what we have seen is in the SPF 10-20 range, with occasional small bottles of 30 or 50. Anything higher than that is sold at the pharmacy right next to afterburn cream and Advil (presumably for those who have finally learned their lesson).
Why don’t Asians use sunscreen? The answer is simple, but difficult to believe for someone growing up in the US. Asians do not want to be tan. They will do anything to keep pale. In fact, while temperatures in the Thai islands this time of year range from super-duper-hot to oh-my-God-I’m-melting (roughly 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit), island inhabitants are draped in long sleeves and pants or long skirts, with hats, scarves, and sometimes even gloves protecting them from the sun.
The only product that locals use with SPF in it is moisturizer, so it is readily available, but with one significant difference: virtually all of it also has some kind of whitening agent. The names of these various creams – “Sparkling white,” “Radiant white,” and “Blinding white” (I made one of those up – you guess which) – make it obvious that the Thais want nothing to do with the lotions sold in blue and brown bottles, opting instead for chemicals that artificially bleach the skin.
The women pictured on the bottles are unnaturally white, conveying two advertising objectives. First, they signify purity and youth to the customer, qualities highly coveted in Asia and really everywhere else. Secondly, they are aspirational in the same way that skinny Western models are aspirational: if you buy this product, you can be as pale as I am. And paleness in Asia means what it meant to Europeans as recently as the early 20th Century: that the wearer has never had to work outside in the sun.
At some point, the desire to be white turned into the desire to be tan for Europeans, and now being tan is an indicator of leisure time and wealth. I am guessing that the same thing will happen eventually in Asia. But in the meantime, all of the skin creams marketed to Asians contain whitening agents that we want no part of, and Westerners like us are forced to shop around for the dark bottles without a pale Asian model on it to protect us while we risk our health for an attractive glow.
We haven’t tried these whitening agents to see if they actually have the intended effect. That kind of research will have to wait for someone braver than me. But either way, it’s good to see the skin care industry is alive and kicking, ready to serve the needs of dermatological malcontents from Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi to Kalamazoo. And for those of you considering an Asian beach vacation, stock up on the strongest sunscreen you can buy; the sun is definitely stronger here, and skin cancer is no laughing matter.