Skin bleaching treatments are a global phenomenon. They are popular in the Caribbean, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and several African countries. But there is a dark side to these lightening products.
They are extremely popular with young African women
Among African countries, lightening products are most popular in Nigeria – according to a report, over 75% of Nigerian women use them. Following Nigeria is Togo with 59%, South Africa with 35%, and Mali with 25%. The global concept of beauty in the 21st century tends to be dominated by eurocentric standards, which includes having a fair complexion. In this context, skin lightening products are appealing and has become a very profitable business. Michael Akolawole, a cosmetic dermatologist and lecturer at Ekiti State Teaching Hospital, said:
“It is a multi-billion dollar market in Africa with Nigeria taking the largest chunk. It is profitable business for the manufacturer, importers and marketers. Demand is inelastic, and with (an) abnormal demand curve, meaning that no matter the price demand will continue to be steady.”
Dr. Margaret Hunter, head of the Sociology Department at Mills College, said that she has noticed bleaching creams become more and more popular.
“Skin bleaching is a growing phenomenon around the world and it’s becoming a bigger business,” she said. “Now it’s a multi-billion dollar business and all the biggest cosmetic companies sell products that are supposed to lighten your skin.”
Banned in Côte d’Ivoire
These products are so dangerous that one African country banned them. The health ministry of Côte d’Ivoire was concerned that the side effects of whitening creams could impact people’s long-term health. The ban includes any creams containing mercury, cortisone, vitamin A, and more than 2% hydroquinone: a lightening agent used to develop photos. “Cosmetic lightening and hygiene creams … that depigment the skin … are now forbidden,” the ministry said in a statement. Many people suffered side effects because of the lightening creams; they can also cause hypertension, thinning of the skin, skin infections, stretch marks, exogenous ochronosis, and skin cancer. Dermatologist Elidje Ekra from the Treichville university hospital in Abidjan said:
“In our cultures, some people think women with light skin are the most beautiful. This beauty standard … pushes many girls to de-pigment their skin.”
For example, advertisements on billboards in Abidjan – Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city – often showcase models with very light skin. “What we see in the media is the lighter one’s skin is, the better one’s life,” he said.
People are ignoring the dangers of using these creams
South Africa has a similar ban to Côte d’Ivoire; products containing over 2% hydroquinone were made illegal in the 1980s. South Africa has some of the strictest laws against skin lighteners – the words “bleach”, “lighten” or “whiten” are not allowed to be used in cosmetics advertisements. Nevertheless, the industry is still thriving on the streets. A study conducted by the University of Cape Town concluded that over a third of women in South Africa still use the products. This makes South Africa the sixth-highest consumers of skin bleachers in the world. Olanrewaju Falodun, a consultant dermatologist at the National Hospital in Abuja, said that the desire for these products is based on the wrong belief that lighter women are more attractive.
“There is a wrong belief that the light-complexioned ladies are more beautiful and acceptable to men,” he said. “Over time ladies who are dark complexioned who have internalized this wrong perception tend to lighten their skin to improve their sense of selfworth. The other reasons are ignorance and peer pressure.”
Dr Imraan Jhetam, a private dermatologist in Durban, said that the increase in international travel has made it easier to smuggle the products across borders. He also blames the high demand for whitening products on Western media, which has pushed its standards of beauty on the world. Jhetam believes that the best case scenario is that a safer lightening product will be created in the future. Until then, he believes that the black market of these products will continue to thrive.
Celebrities also push the beauty standard
Many black celebrities succumb to the pressure of skin lightening. Celebrities like Ghanian model Mariam Abdul Rauf, Kenyan actress Vera Sikida, and more have openly bleached their skin. Several magazines have been accused of photoshopping black cover models with lighter skin – even Beyonce’s skin has supposedly been lightened before. Nigerian-Cameroonian pop musician Dencia founded the skin lightening line Whitenicious. Dencia has lightened her own skin.
“Why did I get a couple of shades lighter than I was? That’s a personal choice,” she said. That is what I wanted to be… I’m very daring. I like trying things. I’m not doing it because I want to have boyfriends. And I’m not doing it because I want anybody to accept me. It’s because I just wanted to do it.”
Some celebrities have resisted the trend
There have been a few dark-skinned celebrities that have refused to meet eurocentric beauty standards, and they can have a great impact on impressionable girls. Lupita Nyong’o confessed that when she was growing up she had hated her dark skin color so much that she prayed every night for a lighter complexion. She once received a letter from a fan that said:
“Dear Lupita, I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.” Nyong’o said “My heart bled a little when I read those words.”