The dangerous effects of skin lightening creams

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SKIN lightening or bleaching is the practice of using cosmetic creams and homemade products to bleach the melanin or black pigment from the skin. Medical experts say this may cause cancer, diabetes, severe skin conditions and other diseases. Ivory Coast recently announced a ban on skin whitening creams because of these health concerns. The announcement noted that cosmetic lightening and hygiene creams that de-pigment the skin are now forbidden in the Ivory Coast. This ban came from the health ministry saying these creams cause serious health problems. “The number of people with side-effects caused by these medicines is really high,” Christian Doudouko, a member of Ivory Coast’s pharmaceutical authority, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency. The women from Ivory Coast, like many others in Africa, are beautiful and very dark, with a smooth black skin that can withstand the African sun. Because advertising focuses on promoting lighter skin as beautiful, we find young and even older African women using creams that bleach the skin so they can look lighter. As a result, skin whitening creams or bleaching creams have been popular for years among young women and some men right across Africa. How did this belief that lighter is more beautiful come about? Skin lightening creams started during the colonial era, when women wanted to look closer to Europeans or people of mixed race. Lightening creams defined ‘civilisation’ and progress in Rhodesia. Products like Ambi and Butone were widely available on the market. There was a ban on them soon after independence, but they have come back more aggressively and are a lot cheaper and more available than before. According to a British dermatologist, Justine Kluker, unregulated products which contain ingredients such as mercury or excessive amounts of steroids are placed on the markets. She said, “If one thinks about steroids being present in these products, they’re often present in much higher quantities than we would prescribe.” She also noted that these creams can cause a variety of health issues, such as “acne, thinning of the skin, glaucoma or cataracts if applied near the eye… or if applied liberally to the whole body, (they can) cause high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, weight gain, mood disturbance due to absorption of large amounts of steroids.” In India, skin lightening cream is also very common. In an article by Nalin Ravichandran, published online in August 2013, she argues that skin whitening creams can cause long-term damage to the skin. She wrote: “Most creams sold in the market are a dangerous cocktail of compounds like steroids, hydroquinone, and tretinoin; the long term use of which can lead to lethal health concerns like permanent pigmentation, skin cancer, liver damage, mercury poisoning and others.”
As result of many studies on skin lightening creams, South Africa introduced the world’s toughest laws against skin lighteners and banned the most active ingredient – hydroquinone. Despite warnings on some products and the ban, many women still use the creams. A University of Cape Town study discovered that more than a third of South African women buy the creams. The same report showed that some creams cause blood cancers, leukemia and various types of liver and kidneys disease and a severe skin condition called ochronosis, a hyper-pigmentation causing skin to turn a dark purple shade. According to a 2008 United Nations Environment Programme study, the use of whitening creams is most widespread in Nigeria “where more than 75 percent of women buy them.” When you watch Africa Magic on television, you will note that many women in West Africa use the lightening creams. They have an orange-like skin and often wear blonde bleached hair. Their lips are naturally black because you cannot bleach lips. So they wear strong red lipstick. This bleached image is neither black nor white, neither African or European or Indian, or Brazilian. It is another look of the ‘new African woman’. At Mupedzanhamo market in Mbare, Harare and all over the place in many cities you will find these small tubes being sold. Most of them are as cheap as a dollar. There is no information to note the side effects of these creams. These creams are made in India, China or other factories. This means some companies are making millions, capitalising on the insecurity of women who have been made to believe that being black is not beautiful. Some women say they feel more beautiful when they use the creams. South African musician, Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi, proudly admitted to using skin lightening cream because it makes her feel, ‘more beautiful and confident’. She said, “I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. “I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy.” Can a ban on bleaching products work in Zimbabwe? How can this be enforced? In Gambia, the government put across such a ban, but people still continue to buy the products. At the end of the day, it becomes a personal choice whether to apply lightening creams on your face or not. But, what is missing in the marketing of skin lightening creams is the important information on the bad side effects of the creams. When information is available and easily understood, then women can make an informed choice. In the meantime, we watch some women (and men) becoming more and more orange looking from the skin lightening creams. Later on, when the sun hits hard on the unprotected depigmented skin, the yellow or orange looking skin will turn to black again. But this time, the blackness will not be a beautiful natural black.

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