Feminine 'white' wash goes too far

'Every woman is concerned!" is the message on the website of a feminine wash product of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Aventis.

"Whether or not you have problems _ irritation, itchiness, burning sensations, dryness or unpleasant odours _ and whatever your age, you need to use [the product]," says the manufacturer, which recently launched a product for Thai women: vagina-whitening wash.

I'm a woman, but I wasn't concerned about the product until I was bombarded with advertisements and marketing campaigns about the newly launched intimate cleansing liquid which is claimed to be able to whiten the user's vagina and areas between the thighs within four weeks.

When a feminine cleansing product was first introduced in Thailand several years ago, a debate took place on whether such a product was necessary.

Doctors concluded that it was not necessary and that mild soap, or even pure water, is enough to clean a woman's intimate parts.

However, manufacturers and advertising agencies have worked tirelessly to convince consumers that the intimate wash product is a must-have.

Sanofi Aventis (Thailand) recently revealed that the value of the feminine wash product market in Thailand is growing by around 10-15% a year, and will reach 500 million baht this year.

The France-based manufacturer now has taken a step further by introducing the cleansing liquid with the slogan "fairer within four weeks".

The firm has invested 80 million baht on TV and radio commercials and marketing campaigns to convince Thai women that their intimate areas should be glowing white and they can achieve that by using this magic product.

There are two points I'd like to make about this vaginal whitening trend. First is about the white-skin frenzy among Thai women (and men), and second is about the issue of consumer protection.

The skin whitening fad is not a new issue here.

Doctors and social critics have raised concerns about it for years.

From whitening lotions to chemical skin peelers; from whitening drinks to glutathione injections, Thai girls have tried them all and oftentimes paid good money for these products.

The white-skin obsession among Thai consumers is a healthy source of income not only for skin product manufacturers, but also for advertising agencies, which seem to come up with endless ideas to lure consumers into buying the products.

One of the most controversial ads was the "Reserved for white-skinned people only" stickers which were posted on BTS Skytrain seats last year.

Considering the large number of products, both legal and illegal, selling in the market, one might have thought that the whitening product industry has reached its peak, but it has not.

After achieving a white face, white body, extra-white teeth, and white armpits, Thai woman's new mission is to have white private parts. (Who cares about white lies?)

I would like this white skin obsession to come to an end so Thai women can spend their money on something that is more useful.

We can live a happy life without having to care so much about looks and complexion.

But how can we bring this white skin craze to an end? This question brings us to my second point.

Something must be done to protect consumers from these products and advertisements.

The Food and Drug Administration's duty should not be limited only to testing products to see if they contain hazardous substances, but also to educate the public about the wise use of cosmetic products.

While the FDA cannot ban the sale of any products if their manufacturers follow legal requirements, the agency should counter pharmaceutical firms' aggressive marketing strategies by educating consumers about the right way to take care of their bodies without having to pay dearly for cosmetic products.

The FDA should also strictly enforce the Drug Act, which prohibits exaggerated claims about a drug's quality.

For this vaginal whitening product, a basic question which the FDA should ask is: Is it true that the feminine wash can make a woman's private parts fairer within four weeks?

But in the end, consumers need strong media literacy so we are not easily lured by exaggerated advertising claims and we can make sensible decisions for ourselves.

We should not let cosmetics firms define for us what is "beautiful".


Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Kultida Samabuddhi
Position: Reporter