AMINA BRAI OMOIKE
Is black still beautiful?
In January this year, data drawn by CNN ranked Nigeria as the top consumer of bleaching creams in the world. It was discovered that 75 percent of Nigerian women used whitening products.
In Africa, Senegalese women followed with 60 per cent; women in Mali stood at 50 per cent and Ghanaian women took 30 percent of the market share.
Some years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products which amount to the world’s highest percentage. The figure compared with 59 percent in Togo, and 27 percent in Senegal.
These days, it is not uncommon to see people who were once very dark-skinned now looking very light. This is not unconnected with the notion that light-skinned ladies are considered more beautiful and attractive to members of the opposite sex. Lawrence Njoku, a successful bachelor based in Abuja had top on his requirements for a wife – ‘she must be fair’. Even at 45, he still seeks a ‘yellow’ woman for marriage.
Unfortunately, some men are even getting involved in bleaching their skin. “I am naturally fair so I like light skinned people. The thing is that with a light person, it is not difficult to notice her beauty. But when a lady is dark, you would have to look closely to realize she is probably a beautiful person. Dark-skinned ladies always need that second look. Make-up doesn’t show well but with a fair person, just a little here and there and the whole face lights up”, says Ibiso Horsefall.
Research has it that Skin lightening is now an $8.8 billion dollar industry! The problem with this obsession for ‘skin lightening’ is that it comes with grave health challenges – known or unknown to those who practice it. WHO has said that the dangers associated with the use of toxic compounds for skin bleaching include, blood cancers such as leukemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys, as well as severe skin conditions. It said that hardcore bleachers use illegal ointments containing toxins like mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin, which gives the skin its colour, but can also be toxic.
In Nigeria, many roadside vendors sell powders and ointments which allegedly have the potential of lightening the skin in a short while. Some traders ‘specialize’ in mixing creams and soaps for interested women which change the colour and sadly, the elasticity of the skin within a few days or weeks.
“I am a cosmetologist and I know how to mix creams for people so my customers just come to my shop and tell me what they want. I mix creams that clear the skin and lightening it but I don’t mix bleaching creams”, say Kingsley, a cosmetic seller in Festac Town.
However, Wikipedia states that skin bleaching, skin lightening and skin brightening are one and the same thing!
Cable news channel, Al Jazeera also reported that business is booming for shops selling skin-lightening products. Non-prescription creams that claim to bleach or lighten your skin can be harmful.
Nevertheless, it is a general consensus that women bleach because of low self-esteem. “I think most women (irrespective of their nationality) bleach because they lack positive self-esteem and due to their poor understanding of true beauty. Beauty is beyond the skin and looks, but most women struggle to accept this. I think my dermatologist would agree that I am a “perfect candidate for bleaching” because my face is way darker than the rest of my skin (about four shades darker), due to the effect of sun exposure on my sensitive skin. However, I chose (and still choose) not to bleach. Instead, I chose to invest in good sun blocks to prevent further sun damage. But the decision not to bleach, though a bit difficult, was because I know I am more than my skin and that my beauty is beyond what I look like–my beauty is on the inside. I also have a daughter, so I need to be careful of the example I set for her. Fortunately, I never saw my own mother with bleaching cream”, said Maureen Belami.
In Nigeria today, a good number of the hyped ‘most beautiful women’ in different spheres of society are ladies who have transited from dark skin to very light.
A survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found that 16 percent of dermatologists believe lightening creams are ‘completely unsafe’ and 80 percent feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist.
“Unfortunately, many skin-lightening creams contain illegal compounds that can damage your health,” says Indy Rihal of the British Skin Foundation. “The most common compounds are high-dose steroids.”
A new report finds dangerous levels of mercury in some skin creams sold online which are marketed as skin lighteners or age spot removers.
Mercury is a highly toxic, heavy metal. Exposure can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discoloration, scarring, and nerve damage along with other side effects.
Some creams also contain hydroquinone, a bleaching agent that is banned from use in cosmetics (but can be prescribed by doctors for medical reasons). Hydroquinone is a strong inhibitor of melanin production, meaning that it prevents dark skin from making the substance responsible for skin colour. Hydroquinone does not bleach the skin but lightens it, and can only disrupt the synthesis and production of melanin hyperpigmentation. It has been banned in some countries (e.g. France) because of fears of a cancer risk.
The European Union banned it from cosmetics in 2001, but it shows up in bootleg creams in the developing world. It is sold in the United States as an over-the-counter drug, but with a concentration of hydroquinone not exceeding two percent.
Although steroids can be useful in treating some skin diseases, such as psoriasis and eczema, this must take place under the supervision of a skin specialist. “Unmonitored use of high-dose steroids can lead to many problems,” says Rihal. “Patients are often very distressed by the results of skin-lightening creams.”
Skin lightening creams can cause permanent skin bleaching, thinning of skin, uneven colour loss, leading to a blotchy appearance, redness and intense irritation. Long term use of skin whiteners can lead to pigmentation increasing to the joints of the fingers, toes, buttocks and ears. The skin of the face can become thinned and the area around the eyes can have increased pigmentation causing a ‘bleach panda effect’.
“Medically approved preparations prescribed by a GP or a dermatologist are not dangerous, within reason,” says Rihal.
A cream that you buy over the counter is not necessarily medically approved and could permanently damage your skin.
Skin whitening, skin lightening and skin bleaching refers to the practice of using chemical substances in an attempt to lighten skin tone or provide an even skin complexion by lessening the concentration of melanin. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proved to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles, adding to the controversy surrounding their use and impacts on certain ethnic groups.
A test of common skin lightening creams available in Nigeria showed that they caused mutations in bacteria and were possibly carcinogenic.
There are however varying arguments as to what is considered bleaching and skin lightening. Hear MarioPlus on Nairaland: “A lady told me it’s not bleaching or toning if it’s done with natural products. She uses Shea butter, Turmeric, Lime/Lemon, Camphor etc. to prepare ‘natural’ soap for her daughter. Another lady recommends mixing their creams with hydrocortisone or clomatrizole creams for a ‘clear’ smooth skin. I was simply shocked. First, I think this generation has totally gone bunkers with vanity. No, this isn’t vanity, its shallowness of the highest order”.
Yvelchstores also said: “I remember a neighbour whose children used Caro white. It’s really sad. The most common one is the use of Funbact A on new borns. When I had my daughter, at least four ladies kept recommending it because she had a rash. It’s scary how shallow people think. I remember years ago in boarding school, a friend was using Sivoclear right from primary school because her mum bought it for her. Soon enough, she always had injury and bled when the seniors asked us to fetch water and the bucket of water brushed against her leg. It was scary.”
Another Nairalander, Kushercain shared a true story. “A woman had complications while giving birth and so had to cut her stomach open and get the baby out. It was successful but yawa gas when they tried stitching her up and the skin kept breaking. Now I even hear that guys are bleaching. It is just like beans when you wash and wash the brown peel off beans and it becomes white; it won’t take up to 40 minutes on fire before getting done. It is the same with our skin; by the time you bleach finish, small sun done peel skin already. I pity all these women making their skin spotted like 101 dalmatians. Black is beautiful”.
There is a growing market in skin lightening products that are toxic-free. However, they are more costly due to their expensive ingredients. Japan and the Pacific are big markets for high quality skin lightening products imported from Europe.
Dr. Melanie Petro of Vestavia, a board certified cosmetic surgeon, says there are safe ways to even out your skin tone to lighten age spots, blemishes, acne or scars. Vitamin C can lighten and brighten your skin naturally.