I am a very choosy skincare shopper.
As a paradoxical penny-pinching college student and Sephora ROUGE member, this choosiness often comes out in a biannual spree which I dually anticipate and dread. In true ~beauty editor~ fashion, I’ve curated my skincare routine into a minimal, paraben-free, and hyaluronic acid-chocked combo that I re-purchase about every six months costing what my infrequent freelance “payroll” (so to speak) calls an arm and a leg. Why do I do this, you may ask? And what on EARTH could I possibly be purchasing that a.) lasts an entire 6 months and b.) warrants so much introspection?
Brightening…within Japanese skincare.
Here’s a brief anecdote as to how I have landed on my current routine. As a Black Japanese person (before this is debated, my last name is ‘Kotomori’) with both dry and oily skin, I have always struggled to find the perfect “combination skin” products to tackle my dehydrated and slippery dermis. It was in the hours of labour spent testing products at Sephora when I discovered I was better off tailoring different products for my skin’s different needs – it was also when I found Tatcha.
Last winter, I discovered that I needed to layer my moisturizers to nourish my dry skin while protecting my oiliness. I don’t even bother with serums (that’s an entirely different column), but my cleansing was honestly not hitting. It was an emergency pre-semester Sephora trip that landed me and my true love, the Tatcha Soy Cleanser, in the committed relationship we’re in today. I’m not going to be dramatic and talk about how this product “changed my life” or dote on how obsessed I am with it, because that language is thrown around way too callously in my opinion, and to be honest, this is just a thing I bought that works for me.
Tatcha opened me up to the amazing world of Japanese skincare, and to my own Japanese-ness. In using and abusing this cleanser, I realised that the thing I was ignoring in my skincare routine was the fact that my seemingly contradictory issues with my skin were common issues faced by different races. I was colourblind to my own racial makeup when it came to my own skin health. Neato, right?
I didn’t delve into Japanese skincare with Tatcha, SK-II, and other various Japanese brands with complete eagerness though – in fact, as a Black person, I was a little scared. I can very easily do a close reading of myself, ignoring my Japanese identity as it manifests in classically “Japanese” skin types, but more shallowly: I actively avoided Asian skincare before Tatcha because of what I know about skin bleaching. Remember five years ago when everyone was suddenly obsessed with Korean skincare and a 10-step routine? I was probably the biggest 15-year-old critic of that whole institution, because I was absolutely convinced that it was a plot to actively market skin lightening agents to the West. Little did I know, that MAC foundation I massaged into my skin every morning with my fingers was doing more harm than the Dr. Jart masks I was critiquing. Neither past-me nor current-me are really right; it’s not that Asian skincare brands are pouring Clorox into their products to lighten our skin, but it’s not like they’re encouraging the beauty community to embrace their natural skin tone either.
Now would be an opportune time to point out that while the emphasis on multi-step skincare routines comes from and was popularized by Asian beauty communities, that skin lightening is not exclusive to that subset.
…And now we arrive at beauty marketing, and the set vocabulary it has curated. This little dictionary includes words, "light," “brightening,” “luminous,” “highlighted.” All of those things are great, don’t get me wrong. But I cannot help but leap immediately to the ingredients label on products when I see these words in fear that the mere connotation of a skincare product providing some sort of "light" means that there is a lightening agent at work. There’s the recent popularity of highlighting about two-thirds of your face with a concealer three shades lighter than your actual face, brightening serums (there’s that product again!) and masks, luminous sprays, and foundation additive drops. What is with the obsession with brightening?
On a recent trip to Japan, I think I discovered an answer – not to be confused with *the* answer which on this earthly plane does not exist . Brightening is considered, at least in the limited perspective of Japanese skincare brands I surveyed in my two weeks there, the antithesis to dull. Dull skin is unmoisturized, flat, and often pale looking whereas brightened skin is healthy, bouncy and almost perky. In direct contrast to that, however, were the horrifying ingredient lists on these brightening products which included trace amounts of skin lightening agents prohibited in products sold in the US.
So where are we?
The devil is in the details, as the old proverb goes. As a student of critical theory, I take the sociological view that the mere use of the word “brightening” in beauty conditions us to value lighter skin under the guise of an aspirational healthy, bouncy, almost perky ideal. What I saw in Japan both supports and complicates this stance, through the way light skin is valued and literally sold, but as ~healthy~ light skin compared to dull light skin. Through the luminosity of these products lies the light underbelly (see what I did there?) of an agenda, I believe, the beauty industry is trying to accomplish through false notions of health.
And with that, I say thank you Tatcha, and fuck brightening.
Con todo mi amor,