The search for beauty is something as old as humanity and doesn’t really surprise many of us, but a recent radio advert for a skin-bleaching cream that guaranteed turning dark skin into light one within a few days without any side-effects shocked me.
If light skin is beautiful, as many believe, one should remember that it comes at a high cost. Most bleaching products contain dangerous chemicals that are deleterious to health.
While some skin lightening products are outrightly illegal, others, such as clobetasol, betamethasone, and hydroquinone are legal products with legitimate medicinal uses (skin conditions), but at times misused for skin lightening.
The main issues even of legitimate products is prolonged use. In the legitimate medicinal use, they are often prescribed by qualified medical practitioners in small quantities, often for short durations and in strictly regulated concentrations. This is informed by the medical principle that no medicine is 100 percent safe.
As an example, the use of mercury, a heavy metal which is contained in some skin products, is highly controlled with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for instance, recommending less than one part per million (1 ppm) for medicinal face creams. But some face creams can contain as much as 50,000 ppm causing mercury poisoning leading to kidney failure and cancer. Similarly, in the USA any preparation containing 1.5 to 2 percent hydroquinone cannot be sold over-the-counter and without a doctor’s prescription because of its possible carcinogenic effects.
It seems no most people don’t pay much attention to this sound medical advice.
Twenty-four year old Saadia is a hardcore skin-bleacher. “I use different creams for over a five months to get a white-skin,” she says.
Saadia doesn’t know the exact name of the cream she uses relentlessly, because what she uses is a combination of many different creams in an unlabeled clear bottle and sold in some cosmetic shops.
Sadia is a genuine customer for the shop and is even constantly reminded by the salesperson to collect her monthly dose and costs her as low as $4 a month, at times getting the cream on credit.
Saadia uses these products because she thinks having a light skin is beautiful and makes her feel more confident. Even though she quickly gained her desired complexion, however, it didn’t come without embarrassing side effects.
She cannot cook or go for shopping in sunlight or else her face suddenly turns reddish and patches of purple appear over her cheeks. Sadia’s skin has lost its natural ability to endure heat and sunlight, this in turn has badly affected her self-esteem and she now regrets her actions.
Saadia is lucky.
Recently, I met an old friend from high school who I had not seen in awhile. I remember her from back in the day with her radiant dark skin and an exuberant personality.
Alas, her face had turned uncharacteristically light with prominent scarring and widespread discoloration. Surprisingly, her arms and legs have remnants of her original skin tone. She now wears the niqaab or face-veil and became introverted. She says she was happier with her natural skin and now she spends a lot of money to restore a healthy skin.
My old friend is not alone in this misery.
The use of skin-bleaching products (which come in different formulations such as creams, lotions, soaps, pills, or even injections) is a trend across Africa especially among women. According to the World Health Organization, 77 percent, 59 percent and 35 percent of women in Nigeria, Togo and South Africa, respectively, regularly use skin-bleaching products.
There is no study done in Somalia, but it is obvious that many Somali women are increasingly messing with their natural skin color using various new products that are flooding the markets.
In one popular cosmetic shop in Somali region of Eastleigh in Nairobi, there are buckets filled with liquid bleach solution – a concoction fermented for a day or two and which contains popular brand names with everything from steroids, hydroquinone, mercury, glycerine to any number of unknown substances. The mixture is packaged in individual plastic bags, tied at the top with a simple knot, and sold without a label for between $3 to $5.
The mixture, nick-named Qas-Qas or cocktail by Somalis, is predominantly used by young skin-bleachers that often don’t have enough cash to buy expensive products or those wanting quick results.
The lay buyers are not aware of the toxic nature of these substances which are sold freely without a doctor’s prescription.
Many dark skin women are happy with and proud of their natural complexion but not all. The reasons why women use skin-bleaching products traditionally vary on the basis of their cultural background. Most women prefer not to discuss openly why they use skin-lighteners.
Psychologists say there are several underlying reasons why people tend to bleach their skin but low self-esteem and perception that light-skinned persons are more likely to find a spouse, are the most common reasons.
Given the dangers above, health authorities should strictly ban selling and advertising illegal products and control more forcefully the sale of legal medicinal skin products that have a high potential for abuse.
Health practitioners and activists should stand up for mass awareness against the rampant practice of young people risking their health in search of an illusion of beauty in bleaching.
Most of all, a collective effort is needed to change the perception that “black is not beautiful”, right from young people during school to the society at large, a most ignorant perception.
South Africa is marketed to the world as Mandela’s rainbow nation, where everyone is proud of their race and heritage. But for some black South Africans there is such a thing as being too black.
A recent study by the University of Cape Town suggests that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin. The reasons for this are as varied as the cultures in this country but most people say they use skin-lighteners because they want “white skin”.
Local musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi, now several shades lighter, says her new skin makes her feel more beautiful and confident.
She has been widely criticised in the local media and social networking sites for her appearance but the 30-year-old says skin-bleaching is a personal choice, no different from breast implants or a having nose job.
Nomasonto Mnisi: Before & After
Nomasonto Mnisi, Musician
“I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy,” she says candidly.
Over the past couple of years Ms Mnisi has had several treatments. Each session can cost around 5,000 rand (£360; $590), she tells the BBC.
Unlike many in the country, she uses high-end products which are believed to be safer than the creams sold on the black market but they are by no means risk-free, doctors say.
Report previously appeared on Sahan and cosmeticdesign