The preference for lighter skin is prevalent in black-majority countries, a testament to the evils of colonial rule. A history of near world domination by colonizers has set a precedent; that white skin is superior and dark skin, inferior. Society is built around and caters to whiteness and so, unfortunately, many people aspire to whiteness.
Colourism may affect a person’s self-esteem, sense of self and perception of beauty and can even hamper economic opportunities. Skin bleaching is not necessarily born of a desire to be white, it’s about wanting to access things white people have easy access to; privileges, opportunities, economic and social status. Also, light skin is posited as the pinnacle of beauty and is a social benchmark in many cultures.
Research by the World Health Organisation in 2011 showed that 40 per cent of African women bleach their skin. 77 per cent of women in Nigeria, 59 per cent in Togo, 35 per cent in South Africa, 27 per cent in Senegal and 25 per cent in Mali use skin-lightening products. In countries like Nigeria, these products are easily accessible and marketed boldly.
Most skin-bleaching creams contain ingredients that inhibit melanin production, a natural skin pigment responsible for skin and hair pigmentation and photoprotection of the skin and eye. The more melanin a person has, the darker they are. These ingredients are carcinogenic and generally harmful for users in the long run.
Hydroquinone’s side effects include dermatitis, blue-black discolouration and even blindness. Steroid creams may sometimes be prescribed by doctors to treat skin conditions like eczema, allergic reactions and dermatitis. These treatments are always for short term use. However, overuse and long time use of steroid creams can cause thinning or weakening of the skin, stretch marks and can make one susceptible to bruising. Continuous use of these products is necessary, otherwise, the skin reverts to its original state and so, the people who use these products begin to face complications over time.
Bleaching tablets and injectables are even more harmful because oftentimes, their ingredients are unknown. Some skincare companies in African countries are increasingly using glutathione, an ingredient marketed to pregnant women looking to lighten the skin of their unborn babies.
In light of these dangers, there is increasing advocacy for the banning of these products. Prominent producers of such products like Johnson & Johnson and L’oreal have caved and discontinued production of some of these creams or at least changed how they market them. However, many brands continue to make and sell these bleaching creams regardless. In 2020, an estimated $8.6billion was spent on skin bleaching creams worldwide.
Some African countries including Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda, have started to ban skin-lightening products, especially creams with hydroquinone. However, they are still entirely too accessible and Nigeria, which has the largest number of users of these products, leaves them unchecked.
To combat the problem, there is a need for government regulation of these products and the harmful ingredients in them. Also, sensitisation on the dangers of skin bleaching is necessary. Above all, there is a need to dismantle racism and colourism, the primary driving force behind skin bleaching and the capitalistic desire for profit over welfare.
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