Based on what you see on Instagram, you wouldn't know that behind all of Rina Sawayama's freshly chopped, red dyed locks she's hiding a beautifully glossy face affected by sun spots. If Sawayama hadn't mentioned it on Twitter, you wouldn't even notice that she deals with this issue on a day-to-day basis. A few weeks ago, the Japanese-British artist tweeted some of frustrations about the lack of options for treating skin conditions like hyperpigmentation:
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), hyperpigmentation is a "harmless condition in which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin." There are different types of hyperpigmentation, one of the most common forms being solar lentigines that often occur as a result of sun damage. Sawayama hasn't been diagnosed with hyperpigmentation by a dermatologist so she isn't trying to be the face of this condition by any means, but she recently noticed that whenever she searched for products to fix her spots she was recommended skin lightening, whitening or brightening solutions.
While these types of products have a long history dating back to the Elizabethan era and have maintained popularity on the Asian market, they're not exactly welcomed with open arms in places like the U.S. due to the overt promotion of white beauty standards. The whole purpose of lightening creams is to adjust the skin's layer of melanin in favor of a more pale complexion. Additionally, products of this nature reinforce colorism and can feed into the dangerous practice of skin bleaching. There's always the option to get professional cosmetic procedures like microdermabrasion, dermabrasion or laser resurfacing, but those treatments can cost anywhere from $100 to $5,000.
We recently caught up with Sawayama after her stint on the runway for God Can't Destroy Streetwear's (GCDS) show at Milan Fashion Week to learn more about this issue and how she takes care of her skin. Stream the experimental pop star's RINA album now and catch her live at The Garage in London on May 25.
Why did you decide to bring attention to hyperpigmentation on Twitter?
I was on South Korean makeup sites and shops that you get from Korean beauty regime products, and I noticed that there were so many words about brightening and so much mention about hyperpigmentation and it seemed like brightening, whitening and hyperpigmentation was mentioned in the same sentence. My mom, and asian people in general, tend to get hyperpigmentation and sun spots as a result of sun damage rather than wrinkles.
What products do you currently use to try to combat things like sun spots and acne scars?
I don't [use any] because I haven't found anything besides things that sort of increase cell turnover like oils that I've been recommended like marula oil. The people in the shops have said "Oh, this will sort of bleach the rest of your skin and lighten it if you use it." Even if it's a spot treatment you have to be careful.
It seems frustrating to only be recommended skin whitening and bleaching products to treat these conditions. How do you feel about that?
I definitely don't think I'm the most informed, but to me it seems crazy that there's products that would target hyperpigmentation and not pigmentation in general. I don't want to be uninformed about colorism and things that are very subtle in our skincare that feed into it.
Let's unpack this "pale skin standard" that you previously mentioned. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
In Asia, which is where I know it's very prevalent, there's a word in Japan which means "beautiful white" and there are lots of products that say "beautiful white" and market that. There's so many different shades of skin in East Asia and even with foundations they have like three colors and they're all pale — they're just different undertones. For someone living in the West, it's definitely problematic and to group east and southeast asians all into one group and tell them that they need to look lighter. I do think it's also a problem that westerners are aware of, but perhaps isn't as highlighted in the east.
Have you ever experienced colorism?
Not personally... Just comments if I get tan from my family members like "Oh, you look dirty." You don't get a golden tan if you're Asian, you get a bit of a green thing going so you need to be careful. Not like you need to wear sunscreen so you don't get skin cancer, it's more like because you'll get too dark but not like discrimination.
There still seems to be this obsession with skin lightening in the beauty world, specifically with products on the Asian market. Why do you think this is still prevalent even in 2018?
To be fair, I think when we talk about skin lightening as a phrase it's more popular outside of the western world like in Asia, India, Japan, China... It's quite eurocentric to them and it recognizes a problem worldwide. I think it's definitely more of a problem in the west because the idea of colorism is definitely tied to white supremacist thinking and structures. Outside of that, I think it's a different conversation that I'm not informed enough about. It's a problem in the West when brands are coming out with like no shades or just one dark shade or they won't cater to yellow skin tones, they'll just do really pink skin tones.
How do you feel about the direction that the beauty industry is going in terms of diversity and representation? Do you think that it's becoming a more inclusive space?
100 percent. It's really, really good. I'm glad that even though it's taken so long it's finally happening.
Give me a full rundown of your current skin care routine!
I'm really into this Korean beauty routine, so I bought lots of essences, toners and mists. I use a Japanese Dove face wash which is like a foam cleanser or DHC cleansing oil if I've got makeup on. I'll use Missha, which is a South Korean brand, the toner and essence. I use the Fresh rose toner spray... it's absurd, there are so many steps [Laughs] And then I'll use this snail extract like the residue of snails, their trail. It's really good for your skin, but so gross. At night I use a sheet mask. I feel like I should just stick to my two-step routine which is just wash and then moisturize, but we'll see.
What is one piece of advice that you would give to a past version of yourself?
I don't know, I can't say anything without sounding really corny! In the words of James Blunt, "You're beautiful." I'm kidding... [Laughs]
Photography: Elizabeth Lee