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Skin Lightening: Does It Matter If You Are Black Or White

To those who knew Banke (not her real name) as a youngster, she was dark complexioned. In fact to many she was beauty personified until she got into the university. First, she let go of her modest way of dressing for clinging, skimpy and exposing clothes, next she began to wear heavy make-up and before one could say ‘Jack’, her complexion had become lighter. The transformation left many bewildered even her family did not understand the reason behind her skin change. Asked why she decided to change rather tone her skin, Banke said “it’s the in-thing.

I mean it is trending and I love being trendy. I have never really liked being dark complexioned, it is not flashy. I feel more beautiful now that I have toned my colour and I can confirm this by the number of men who make advances at me on a daily basis.” Skin lightening or bleaching or toning has become a matter of public health concern. This is because those involved (both people of colour and fair skinned people) use bleaching products whose components are harmful to the skin to lighten their colour.

Such products may cause skin discolouration, skin cancer and other medical problems. The craze for skin lightening according to some school of thought, stems from the fact that the media and to a large extent, the society projects fair skinned ladies as the truly beautiful women to the neglect of the dark skinned ones. Some employers who erroneously prefer light skinned people over dark skinned people for employment under the guise that they are flashy and would attract more patronage to the company further worsen this.

This trend social analysts say, is due in large part, to the negative impact of European colonialism,, which encouraged a divide-and-conquer mentality based on social classism, colourism and racism. According to Obiora Anekwe, a counselor, educationist and member American Society of Bioethics and Humanities, “Skin bleaching symbolizes more complex psychological issues such as self-perception and self-esteem that have plagued people of colour since the advent of international slavery. This condition is medically risky and psychologically dangerous.

The ethical issues involved in skin bleaching is that many skin bleaching products cause great harm to customers due to high levels of mercury. Thus, many customers who buy these products are endangering the health of their skin, while skin care product companies continue to benefit financially from selling these products.” A recent survey carried out by British Skin Foundation noted that about 16% of dermatologists believe lightening creams are completely unsafewhile 80% feel they are safe only when prescribed by a dermatologist. This is because there are prescription- only lightening creams which should be used under the supervision of a doctor, on the other hand, a lightening cream obtained without prescription, may contain banned substances that could be harmful to the skin such as mercury and hydroquinone.

The WHO identifies mercury which is one of the common ingredients found in skin lightening soaps and creams, as a dangerous substance capable of causing kidney damage. Mercury in these products Anekwe said may also cause physical reactions such as scarring, reduction in the skins resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, and also psychological outcomes such as anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.

“Unfortunately, a generation of women is negatively being affected by excess usage of these products and in many instances the environment, including the water supply and food chain, is dramatically being affected in countries where people of color live and consume skin bleaching products,” he said.

He also called on government to restrict the sale of skin lightening products containing mercury over the internet. According to another report from the WHO, “Nigeria with 77% has the world’s highest percentage of women who use skin-lightening products closely followed by Togo 59%, South Africa 35%, Senegal 27%, and Mali 25%. The reasons for this are varied but most people say they use skin lighteners because they want white skin.”

Skin lightening is not peculiar to women as many men are also involved in the practice. It may be difficult to regulate the use of lightening products in Nigeria because of the porous nature of the system, it is very easy for these products to find their way into the market unchecked so   much so that most of these products are on display on the roadside. For many, it is a taboo for them to make use of petroleum jelly or shear butter or creams with lesser harmful content that is good for their skin. Emma, is a young man who has lightened his skin, when The UNION asked him why he did that he said “I have always loved to be fair and flashy.” Asked if he understood the dangers of using such substances on his skin, he said “I do not know what you are talking about. I do not like to use Vaseline or those other products because they do not give me what I want.

“ For Helen, a student, the higher the price, the more effective the product, “for now,I use Makari body milk alongside other beauty products. Anybody who is conversant with these beauty products knows how expensive this cream is. Looking good does not come cheap, so I spend money to keep up the trend.” Surprisingly, most of these products are affordable which may explain why many people are going for them. Seyi, a textile merchant, said “with as low as N500, one can purchase a skin lightening product to use. This means any one can actually afford to change his or her skin colour. There are also some expensive ones for those who have the money. I do not bleach, I do not like it.

I have seen what it does to people with many having colour patches all over their body. I do not want to be a human masquerade.” A lady who spoke under condition of anonymity, blamed the men for fueling the desire to lighten the skin in women. “Many men encourage and even buy the products for some of these women to use. Besides, when they make the woman who has enhanced her skin colour to feel on top of the world, a woman with low self esteem would be easily swayed by such inordinate things.” Femi Kuti, in a chat with Al Jazeera, attributes skin bleaching to a feeling that foreign products and images must, by definition, be good. He said the use of skin-lightening products have given rise to their own terminology.

“When the bleaching propaganda got so negative, they had to come up with toning. Bleaching sounds too hard, now it’s toning. I don’t bleach, they say, I tone!They think bleaching is gege, (a Nigerian term for cool),”he said. It is surprising to note that in 2004, nearly 40% of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners. History has it that in Asia, the preference for light skin and the use of whitening products goes back hundreds to thousands of years and it is most often attributed to the connection between fairness, wealth and luxury.

India with the largest global market comprising over 60 percent of women (and a growing number of men) consumed 233 metric tons of the products, in 2012. Mark Hay in an article on skin lightening, averred that most whitening products by major global corporations, if used in moderation, appear to be safe. This is because these creams use well-tested compounds like arbutoin, kojic acid, niacinamide, retinoic (derived from vitamins or things like bearberry or licorice) to either inhibit melanin production or slough off top layers of darkened tissue revealing lighter natural skin.

In May 2015, Ivorian government banned creams containing cortisone, hydroquinone (in concentrations over 2 percent), mercury or vitamin A and its derivate. According to Ivory Coast authorities, the health risks associated with these components include increased risk of diabetes, hypertension and skin cancer which given their popularity, could transform a beauty trend into a public health crisis.

Failure to comply could attract a fine of 50,000 to 350,000 CFA Francs (€76 to €534 or $83 to $585). Despite having such a law in place, many ivorians are yet to comply with it. With the many dangers posed by the use of these products on the skin, many do not want to give a second thought to stop its use. Does skin colouration alone define an individual and as one respondent asked “is black no longer beautiful?”

-Nwakaego Ohaegbulam in this article highlights why people bleach or lighten their skin despite the harmful effects of such practice on human health

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