Skin-lightening or bleaching is an epidemic in many countries worldwide, and Africa in particular. Nigeria currently has the dubious honour of being the skin bleaching capital of the world, with an estimated 77% of Nigerian women using skin-lightening products. Skin bleaching is not new and cuts across ethnic lines and Queen Elizabeth the first of England famously used lead as a skin whitener. Skin bleaching, however, became popular among African women in the late 1950s probably as a consequence of colonisation.
The skin lightening industry is a lucrative business and is set to be worth $10bn globally and is expected to grow to $23 billion by 2020. In Nigeria, the cost of skin lightening varies significantly from few hundred Naira for a cream or soap to thousands of Naira for a professional treatment. Unfortunately, with increasing westernization, the popularity of skin lightening products has skyrocketed. This popularity spawned the release of products like ‘’Whitenicious’’ launched by Cameroonian-Nigerian pop star Dencia. Although it was promoted a treatment of hyperpigmentation, sales were driven by images of Dencia, dark-skinned before and significantly lighter afterwards.
We all know that fair skin is considered the beauty standard and this is deeply ingrained in many cultures where darker skin is associated with dirt or poverty. The preference for light skin is expressed subtly or blatantly and is played out in pop culture with the villain having dark skin or features and the protagonist the opposite as seen in the video clip.
This preference for light skin comes with tremendous health consequences since most skin lighteners contain products which are dangerous to health. More worryingly is that women actively seek out products that contain harmful ingredients, because they are perceived as more effective.
How skin lighteners Work
Melanin is a pigment produced by melanocytes in the skin that gives skin its colour and provides protection against the harmful effects of UV rays. Skin whitening creams slow the production of melanin in the skin’s outer layer by reducing the action of the enzyme, tyrosinase, which controls melanin production in the skin.
The Dangers of seeking Lighter Skin
Skin lighteners cause significant health risks when used over long periods of time. In Nigeria where skin bleaching products are largely unregulated over-the-counter creams, created with home remedies or a mixture of multiple creams tend to be the norm. This results in scarring and burns due to use of these substandard products which contain hazardous chemicals in harmful quantities and the main offender’s ingredients responsible are:
Some of the consequences of skin bleaching are associated with the toxic compounds mentioned above which may cause cancers well as severe skin conditions. These side effects may be internal or external; internally side effects include kidney and liver failure or cancer while external side effects include eczema, severe acne, pigmentation problems and host of other skin infections. Bleaching also affects the skins ability to regenerate which means injuries may not heal as quickly or not at all after prolonged use.
Although the pursuit of fair skin as a beauty standard continues to plague many cultures, we need to understand the dangers to our health, ruined by the pursuit of light skin and end the stigmatisation of dark skin.
In part 2 of this series I will go in-depth, explaining the extremely harmful side-effects of skin lightening, particularly honing in on the 4 ingredients I listed above. I will also share a few natural alternatives that suppress melanin production but are non-toxic with less, not zero, side effects
Be sure to check back soon!
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