Taiwan’s problematic personal care items

Need some White Men Hand Wash? Taiwan’s got you covered…

Sign hanging above a supermarket aisle, which reads ‘Cabbage/Dehumidifier’.
My local supermarket has a “Cabbage/Dehumidifier” section. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

My nearest supermarket’s a 10-minute walk away, but I have my groceries delivered about half of the time. Summer’s hot and delivery’s free, so it’s an easy choice.

But I usually buy personal items in-store, using my phone to translate packaging so I can make semi-informed decisions. Until last week, when I ordered toothpaste online for the first time.

I used Google Translate to find the word for toothpaste (牙膏), and pasted it into the app. Unable to read the search results, I sorted by price and added the first result to my cart.

This is what I received:

A tube of Day and Night toothpaste.
Day and Night…
Close-up of the label on a tube of Day and Night toothpaste.
…Feel free! TOOTHPASTE 3 Mins make you easy !

Unexpectedly—given the cheap price and terrible English—it was made in Germany.

It tastes fine.

But this got me thinking. Not just about the weird English that’s everywhere you look in Taiwan (including the “Cabbage/Dehumidifier” section of my local supermarket), but also the weird personal care items I've seen on the shelves.

So, on my way home tonight, I stopped at a 24-hour general store, Showba (小北百貨), for a walk down the Health & Beauty aisle.

Brace yourself.

A row of liquid hand soaps on a supermarket shelf.
Amongst the liquid hand soaps I saw…
Close-up on the label of White men Hand Wash.
…White men Hand Wash (ISO9001 APPROVED).

But because White men Hand Wash isn’t alarming enough, Taiwan used to have a product called “Black People Toothpaste” (黑人牙膏), labelled “Darkie” in English.

Darkie toothpaste used a grinning mascot in a top hat and tuxedo modeled after the American minstrel performer, Al Jolson, infamous for his blackface portrayals.

Astoundingly, it was only two years ago that this product was finally renamed—to “Darlie”:

Boxes of Darlie toothpaste on a supermarket shelf.
Darlie toothpaste. Changing the ‘K’ in Darkie—to literally the next letter of the alphabet—has the vibe of a non-apology apology. But at least the minstrel’s gone.

Taiwan is not a backwards country: 61% of citizens hold a valid passport, and 45% of working-age adults have a university degree (compared to 36% in New Zealand).

Younger Taiwanese are politically aware and socially liberal. But, presumably, the companies that sell personal care items are not run by younger Taiwanese.

Which may be why Showba also has a bunch of skin-whitening products:

Facial scrubs on a supermarket shelf.
Amongst the facial scrubs…
Close-up of a label that says WHITENING WASHING FOAM.
Oil control products on a supermarket shelf.
Amongst the oil control products (just along from the Dr. White Anti-bacterial Hand Cleaner)…
Close-up of a product called OIL CONTROL and WHITENING FACIAL CLEANSER.
Clay foam products on a supermarket shelf.
And amongst the clay foams…
Close-up of a label that promotes Skin Whitening.
…Skin Whitening Deep Clean Clay Foam.
A row of facial washes on a shelf.
Finally, amongst some other facial washes…
Close-up of a label that promotes Whitening Wash Balances Skin.

These are just the ones I can read. I suspect there are many more without English labels.

The casualness, with which these are placed amongst more innocuous products, is jarring. Here in Taiwan, the normalization of skin whitening is an uncomfortable surprise.

I know beauty standards are not universal. But on this particular point, I hope Taiwan will eventually move on.

A row of men’s facial cleansers on a supermarket shelf.
So for now, I’ll stick to more tasteful products. So I can…
Close-up of a label that says, amongst other things, “remove the old waste horny.”
…remove the old waste horny.