Concerned about the high frequency of cosmetic and non-medical use of skin-lightening products and their various side effects, including skin cancer, Dr. Chidinma Gab-Okafor, is set to combat this menace through Beauty in Black Foundation. The foundation is set to address this challenge through widespread advocacy campaign and sensitization on the health hazards of skin bleaching, promoting African beauty and uplifting the self esteem of Black women and youths.
In partnership with the Lagos State Government, the maiden edition of Beauty in Black Youth Empowerment Programme is scheduled to kick off on November 27 at the Ikeja Youth Centre, Lagos. The training will equip youths on how to make cosmetic products, using organic materials; they will also learn how to make right beauty choices to protect their health.
Dr. Chidinma Gab-Okafor, Co-founder of the foundation and Public Health Physician at Demato Cosmetologist speaks on the nutty issue of bleaching.
Why is it that many Black people still yearn to be like the Whiteman long after colonialism?
Let me start by saying, yes, the yearning started from when the colonial masters were here. And the media, most times, always promote fair- skinned women. WHO has also put forth reasons why some people want to be White. People think those who are fair (complexioned) are more attractive and more intelligent; they believe it increases their chances of getting jobs.
If people feel this way, is it not a psychological problem?
It is a big psychological problem that bothers on low self esteem. It is, usually, an uphill task for us, doctors, when a woman walks into the office and we all know it’s her right to want to look beautiful and there is nothing you can do about it. But when you begin to look into why they actually do it, you find that it stems from low esteem. You feel that that person who is fair (complexioned) is more glorifying, finer, more attractive and that it increases their desirability by men. Men are also compounding the issue as well because, most men prefer light-skinned women to dark-skinned ones.
Is it possible to get people out of this addiction?
Yes, that’s why this foundation is here. We want to see how we can use knowledge of sound public health to get people out of it. We want to start by increasing awareness on dangers of skin bleaching. There are many dangers of skin bleaching; there are immediate dangers and there are those one can acquire on the long run. This is a very sensitive matter so you have to approach it the right way. If you use White is bad attitude, you won’t achieve anything. If you want to use strict behavioural approach, you may not get to them. We want to come in a very subtle way and gradually get to them.
The statistics for those who bleach are very high. Why is that so?
This was a WHO finding; that 77% of women bleach and unfortunately, this projection was made here in Lagos. This means that 8 out of 10 women in Lagos bleach! Although some say this is not correct, I can tell you that it is correct. Walk down the streets of Lagos; whether you are passing through the rich avenue or poor avenue, if you look at them closely, most of them have sun burns. This is a reaction between the sun and the chemicals they wear on their faces. The question is this: is it intentional or not intentional? For some, it is intentional. They go to shops and tell you that they want something to make them look lighter or just walk to the shelf and pick what they like.
What are the effects?
One of the most reported cases of death among bleachers is skin cancer. And the truth is that if we do not do something now, it won’t be long before it becomes an epidemic; that is, if it is not already. When you bleach your skin, you are actually preventing your skin from producing melanin which God has created in Black people. Till date, take it anywhere, melanin is the best sunscreen anybody can have. And now that we have climate change, the intensity of the sun is even worse. You can imagine using bleaching cream, you have taken off your melanin production and the sun comes with full effect. What then happens is that your cells go hay wire; they lose their natural rhythm and they become cancerous.
Apart from skin cancer, we also have blood, liver and kidney cancers. What happens is that whatever you rub on your skin, gets into your body. So if you can’t eat it, don’t rub it because eating it is as good as rubbing it. They enter the system and alter the entire configuration of the inner system. Once they change the particular way the body is supposed to function, one of the results will be cancer coming on.
Why do Nigerians like to show off because that is what makes people take to bleaching?
Well, it’s still for the same reason I mentioned earlier. People want to be seen. Yearning for whiteness is because of the notion that you easily get noticed. I can remember a couple of men discussing and one of them saying: ‘I won’t go for a dark-skinned girl. When you have a fair girl sitting beside you in front of your car, it’s like you have the sun shining there’. Because of this kind of societal recognition, a lot of women have done harm to themselves. I know a lot of women, when they have a party in like two weeks, they invade the shops to buy creams to bleach themselves for that occasion so that they can ‘glow’. After the party what happens? It’s a crazy thing and, clearly, a societal problem.
In the worst case, what would it be for the person who bleaches?
We have acute and chronic implications. Acute means immediate implications. We have all kinds of skin manifestations, irritations, inflammation of the skin etc; some, when they have wounds, it doesn’t heal on time. Then we have chronic implications. Some people have bleached for up to 10-20 years. The most painful are those that result in infertility. These are chemicals; they get into the system and distort the entire hormonal balance. Research has shown it. Some people have numbness in the hand and tingling sensations.
Then, we have kidney failures from mercury-containing creams. We also have depression, difficulty to sleep. Why? It’s an indirect thing. You want to be fair complexioned. Once you start, you look so beautiful but a little way into it, with the effect of the sun, it oxidizes – causing the face to be darker. The more cream you use, the darker you get. At some point, they bleach off their entire skin; you can even see their veins, increasing the permeability of the cream into the body.
You also have cosmetic implications such as stretch marks; some of which are irreversible.
What can the government do in terms of policies that can help to stop importation of some of these harmful creams?
Part of what we are doing as a foundation is to conduct this advocacy visit to schools. I can tell you that parents are also buying their children into this practice. They buy the creams. I have seen children with sun burns and when you see their parents, you’d understand where they are coming from. We want to develop materials that can help these children and to get policy makers to adopt the materials and create some legislative ban on some of these creams imported into the country. Some are over-the-counter creams but are still being used.
If bleaching is bad enough, how do you explain men who also engage in this unwholesome practice?
Geographically, there are certain places that you go to and you notice that the men are also bleaching. There are certain groups of men in certain work places, I don’t want to mention names, where men are also bleaching. I believe that if we can get to the women, we can also reach the men because, the women are the ones who buy the creams used at home. And those who buy the right creams, the men use it with them.
How far are you willing to go with this campaign?
We are about to start our pilot programme. We are starting off in partnership with the Lagos State Ministry of Youth & Social Development. We are conducting our pilot entrepreneurship programme. We are going to empower about 200 youths on how to use basic raw materials available to transform them into ingredients for transparent, cosmetic end-products. Next year, our focus will be on women. It’s a small movement today but I believe in the years to come, we should be able to reach quite a number of people. In future, we hope to bring in pageantry as well as arts and culture to promote this concept of Black in Beauty. We would employ every means to promote the African heritage.