In early 2022, Hush’D Makeover, a made-in-Nigeria skincare brand featured Big Brother Naija season six ex-housemate, Maria Chike Benjamin in an advert. Maria who is light-skinned was walking through a crowd of dark-skinned men, women and children and they were blown away by her skin. They couldn’t get over how glowing her skin looked. And truly, she caused a lot of commotion while she cat-walked through the crowd.
Along a poolside, a waiter carrying some juiced drinks lost her steps and fell over a handsome young man who donned a black suit, knocking him into the nearby swimming pool. Both were dark-skinned and had their eyes locked to Maria with mouths ajar as she walked past them. Even children were carried away. Obviously, they were dark-skinned too. Another scene witnessed a female barber receive a hot slap from a young man she was giving a haircut. The slap was for letting the clipper sweep deep down into his hair as against his wish. In the process, Maria burst into hysteric and provocative laughter as she walked past them. Again, both of them were astonished and carried away as Maria walked by. Both were also dark-skinned.
From the 33_secs advert, the message becomes clear that for many, the idea of beauty or good looks is expressed in fair and light skin. This is the erroneous narrative being forced down the throats of dark-skinned people. This is also why you rarely see an advert, billboard or poster for a beauty or skincare product with a dark-skin-toned model. Light skin will always be seen as superior, especially with the way most brands portray it.
In many African societies, lighter-skinned women are considered more beautiful and are believed to be more successful and likely to find marriage. An opinion held amongst some ladies is that fairness of the skin carries the added advantage of being more confident, sexy and attractive to men. Some also believe that light-skin-toned women belong to a higher social class. All these brainwash dark-skinned people into wanting to change their skin colour through skin bleaching.
Skin bleaching comes under some names like skin-lightening or skin whitening. It involves using creams, soaps or pills to achieve a lighter skin tone. Some also use professional treatments like chemical peels and laser therapies to lighten the skin. These practices are common amongst non-white populations and are triggered by cosmetic reasons rooted in low self-esteem considerations.
A research obtainable under the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a part of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) reveals that skin bleaching has been associated with a variety of known adverse health effects like dermatitis, exogenous ochronosis, steroid acne, kidney disorder and even cancer. These health conditions are linked to harmful active ingredients found in most skin-lightening products.
When a product containing active ingredient like hydroquinone is applied to the skin, it decreases the concentration of melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment that helps protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. It also gives the skin its colour. When melanin production decreases, such protection reduces and this puts the skin at greater risk of developing certain skin cancers.
Another active ingredient in skin-lightening products is Mercury, a toxic heavy metal. It may appear on product labels under names like Hg, mercury oxide, mercury iodide, ethyl mercury, mercurous chloride, or phenyl-mercuric salts. Medical News Today, a health information site in the United States discloses that people who use mercury-containing products on their skin may develop skin rashes, skin discolouration, anxiety, depression, psychosis, reduced resistance to skin infections, and kidney damage. It noted that with increased exposure, mercury can cause death.
Sadly, not all manufacturers list their ingredients transparently. Some write in Arabic. This makes it hard to know if skin-lightening products contain mercury. However, whenever a product label contains instructions to avoid contact with metal jewellery, then, that can be a warning sign, because mercury reacts with some precious metals such as gold. When people wash mercury-containing products off their skin, it eventually ends up in the ocean, where it can enter the food chain and then contaminate fish and other sea creatures which when eaten can harm humans and other animals. This leads to mercury poisoning. Because of this, many countries have banned mercury for cosmetic use. But then, it is often still possible to buy products that contain it online on Amazon and other e-commerce marketplaces.
Corticosteroid is another ingredient found in skin-bleaching creams. According to healthline.com, it can cause steroid acne, a condition mostly affecting the chest, back and arms region.
A new skin-bleaching procedure that is catching on is the intravenous application of glutathione – a natural antioxidant produced by the liver which can also be obtained in the form of antioxidant supplement tablets. Somehow, skincare companies in some African countries are increasingly using glutathione to appeal to pregnant women aiming to lighten the skins of their babies in the womb. This is as contained in Africa Renewal, an information programme working to promote the work of the United Nations, Africa and the international community. They also warn that it is dangerous for pregnant women to take bleaching tablets and that injectables to lighten skin are the most dangerous since no one knows exactly the composition of the injectables which are mostly bought from informal markets.
The truth is that some women swallow cosmetic pills during pregnancy so that they can lighten the skin of their babies before they are born. Even though glutathione pills do not get approval from relevant authorities, the growing demand for babies with light skin means that the pills will eventually be smuggled into luggage at airports. There is therefore no gainsaying that the skincare and cosmetic industry are taking advantage of African women’s craze for lighter skin to cash out full-time.
In Nigeria, skin-lightening creams are not effectively regulated. They are seen in the hands of roadside vendors stacked along sidewalks in marketplaces. Many of these products are unlabelled and so their actual ingredients are unknown. Both local and imported skin-lightening products line the shelves of these shops. In addition, the vendors also mix different ointments and creams for customers depending on their desired level of lightness. They also train prospective cream mixers. This is why Nigeria is fast becoming the destination for the sale of skin-lightening products.
A study from the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology published in CNN in January 2022 show that in Africa, a staggering 75 per cent (75%) of Nigerian women bleach their skin. This is closely followed by Senegal (60%), Mali (50%) and Ghana (30%). One is therefore not shocked that Nigeria is sitting pretty in the ranking.
When the bleaching propaganda became so negative, the cosmetic industry players had to come up with “toning.” They understood “bleaching” sounded too harsh; so, they came up with “toning.” Also, makers of skin-bleaching products have learnt to introduce the term “organic” on their labels. So, when you hear stuff like organic skincare products, you may want to shine your eyes.
While it is easier to focus on women, the prevalence of skin-bleaching practices amongst men should also be examined. Many years ago, convincing a man to lighten his skin sounded pretty strange. Today, men now pay attention to their skin. They want to look good and hear positive comments about their skin tone. How about men who bleach their lips to have artificial pink lips? They call it ‘sexy pink lips.’ Men who use bleaching cream, understand that most women like light-skinned men; so, they bleach to attract them. A visit to skin beauty shops reveals that men dominate the cosmetic business more and they specialize in mixing different kinds of cream and chemicals to make high-demand skin-lightening creams.
But then, health experts have maintained that men who bleached their skin suffer more adverse effects than women. This is because they are more exposed to sun rays than women. Men stay out in the sun longer than women when hustling; hence the sun damages their skin more vigorously than women. Their skin turns into hard leather and this is usually an eye-sore. Experts also say that continuous exposure to the sun could lead to skin cancer.
In Nigeria, it is commendable though that government is making efforts to stop bleaching by banning the importation of skincare and beauty products containing dangerous skin-lightening chemicals. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) usually would close down companies that make use of those banned active ingredients.
However, it is believed that the measure might not be enough to curb the deep-seated skin bleaching craze in Nigeria because Nigerians could still buy these harmful products from countries where regulatory measures on bleaching are mild. Nigerians can also obtain harmful bleaching creams from dubious sources like the marketplace, shops and other unregulated and unprofessional sources. Instead, experts advocate that regulatory bodies should begin to sensitize the public on the health risks of using skin-lightening products.
Also, investigations into homemade products should be considered to identify their chemical compositions. Usually, existing studies only focus on the ingredients in regular beauty products. But homemade concoctions also contain chemical compositions that have adverse health effects.
Another area of regulation is the media. Regulatory agencies should begin to clamp down on media stations and outfits that feature advertorials on skincare and beauty products having prohibited harmful ingredients on product labels. Also, the media should help in opening up conversations around skin colour and beauty. They should start featuring other shades of beauty beyond the western ideal to end the colour bias that goes with skin bleaching. In this regard, hashtags like #melaninpoppin, #black_is_beautiful and #blackgirlmagic should be promoted to encourage young Nigerians to take pride in their complexions. This will help raise their self-esteem and correct wrong perceptions of beauty.
To end skin bleaching in Nigeria, it must begin from the cradle. Mothers should desist from giving their daughters white and blue-eyed dolls. Children should be given dolls that look like them and have dark skin tones like them. This will help them build early positive images and bolster self-esteem and hence, reduce the desire for skin bleaching when they grow into adults. Mothers should also desist from bleaching the skin of their children. Rather, these children should be made to appreciate the colour of their skin at such early age.
There is no gainsaying that the pressure of white beauty standards and colourism mostly drives the demand for skin-bleaching products. Thus, advocacy on self-acceptance and the education of the public on the potential health risks of skin bleaching can prevent people from using risky products. Also, Nigerians must form the habit of reading product labels before buying them. Yes, it is often said that the best way to hide something from a Nigerian (black people), is to put it in a book. This translates to mean that the personal disposition of the ‘average’ Nigerian is to prefer ignorance over enlightenment. But this has to be discouraged. As a result, NAFDAC should swing the heavy hammer on dubious brands that have their product labels in languages other than English.
These measures no doubt will help reduce the crazy and deep-seated skin bleaching culture in Nigeria.
About the writer
Chukwuemeka Oluka is a passionate writer and research enthusiast. A graduate of Electronic & Computer Engineering from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka and also a certified Engineer with COREN. He tweets “@mekus_oluka” and can be reached via “email@example.com”