Skin Bleaching: Dilemma Of Nigerians
By – Josephine Agbonkhese
Sylvia (not real names), now 35, was born with a melanin-rich complexion— at least her childhood photograph which stood gallantly on the wall of her living room testifies to that.
Photos of her as she progressed into adulthood, which still flood her social media pages, also attest to this. By her 30th birthday however, that melanin-rich skin had morphed into a completely ‘white’ skin.
While the mother of two might be basking daily in the euphoria of her skin transformation, she unknowingly represents one of the 77 percent of Nigerian women recently reported by the World Health Organisation, WHO, who daily apply lightening chemicals— also known as skin bleaching agents, on their skin.
According to the WHO, that figure is the highest in Africa compared to 59 percent in Togo, 35 percent in South Africa and 27 percent in Senegal.
The point must be made here that this menace is not restricted to the female gender alone as men now indulge in this unwholesome lifestyle.
The global skin-lightening industry is estimated to be worth $8.6 billion as at 2020, and is expected to reach $12.3 billion by 2027, according to Global Industry Analysts, GIA. This boom spells more danger to both the human health and societal wellbeing, making bleaching a national health emergency requiring a multifaceted regulatory approach.
Skin bleaching, according to Consultant Dermatologist/Venereologist, Dr. Anita Benson, involves the use of creams, soaps, serums, toners, oils, butters, peels (both store-bought and organic/homemade), skin lightening procedures, topical and oral medication, as well as injections, for either medical or cosmetic reasons.
Though it isn’t exactly clear why many Nigerians daily subject their skin to bleaching agents, mental health advocate and Psychiatrist cum MD/CEO, Pinnacle Medical Services, Dr. Maymunah Yusuf-Kadiri, told Allure it certainly cannot be unconnected with the continuous propagation of the colourist ideology— the belief that lighter skin is associated with beauty, success, and often also, wealth.
Fair-skinned Christine Onwuachumba, a young mother of one based in Lagos, however told Allure that being fair or dark constituted none of an issue to her.
“I do not think being fair opens doors like most people think; there’s absolutely no added advantage to being a fair person. I think what attracts people more is the body type. I am on the big side though; I mainly wish I wasn’t fat,” she noted.
“My fair complexion is the best gift my mother gave to me. I would have been a sad person if I was born dark” says Nadia (surname withheld), an aspiring media practitioner.
So deeply has this ideology permeated the Nigerian society that ‘skin whitening’ and ‘skin toning’ have become the most popular and sought-after inscriptions on labels across cosmetic stores in the country. As if that wasn’t enough, in response to popular market demand, skin care products supposedly formulated for kids and teenagers, now bear the inscription ‘toning’ on their labels.
“That is what sells”, says Ronke Bello, a beauty store operator at Alimosho area of Lagos.
“Nobody wants a dark complexion anymore. If I wasn’t stocking skin lightening products, I may not be making any reasonable sale daily,” she added.
For Ebuka, who runs a massive beauty store in the Okota area of Lagos, he absolved shop owners and put the blame at the doorstep of manufacturers who flood the market with products that lighten and bleach.
Between bleaching and toning
While many users of skin lightening products would, often, however deny the term ‘bleaching’ and swear to be simply ‘toning’ their skin, another expert, Dr. Ayesha Akinkugbe, Consultant Dermatologist and Genito-urinary Physician/Senior Lecturer at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH/University of Lagos, asserted that there is no difference between both terminologies as the motive ‘to tone or bleach’ is the same and the products being used also perform same function.
“The only way to maintain your natural skin tone is to keep your skin healthy by practicing and engaging in a lifestyle that promotes this. This includes a good healthy skin care routine with use of appropriate products, as well as consistent and proper use of sunscreen,” Akinkugbe, who bellies over 15 years of experience, quickly clarified.
Sharing with Allure the dangers of skin bleaching, Benson, who is also Founder, Embrace Melanin Initiative; a non-profit founded to eradicate colourist and harmful skin lightening practices from Africa, said skin lightening agents could result in thinning of the skin, discoloration, spider veins, red skin, stretch marks, easy bruising, bacterial infections, fungal infections, eczema, body odour, worsening of acne and other irreversible skin conditions.
Dr Ayesha Akinkugbe
Affirming this claim, Akinkugbe added that the kidney, liver, endocrine and immune systems, also get affected as bleaching agents such as Hydroquinone and Mercury get absorbed through the skin into the blood.
“The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, Cosmetic Product Regulation 2019 addresses the use of hydroquinone, mercury and steroids in cosmetic products. Over the years, NAFDAC has cautioned Nigerians against the use of ‘dangerous skin lightening’ ingredients in cosmetic products and the abuse of bleaching agents by Spas,” says Akinkugbe.
Benson, on her part, would, however, place premium on use of sunscreen instead of skin lightening chemicals in combating hyperpigmentation— a major reason people with darker skin tone patronise skin lightening products.
“Hyperpigmentation requiring medical treatment usually involves a localised area of skin and not the entire face and body so even those medical products approved for treating hyperpigmentation would not be recommended for use on the entire body surface area.
“I tell my patients that the first product to use if you are worried about hyperpigmentation, is sunscreen and not bleaching cream! The UV radiation from the sun is responsible for a lot of the hyperpigmentation Nigerians suffer from and daily use of sunscreen helps to improve, as well as, prevent this,” she explained.
On the way forward, Akinkugbe again says, “It is time for NAFDAC to go beyond current regulations and put a stop to the importation, production, manufacturing and sale of these products in Nigeria.”
For this move to succeed, “all avenues, including online and social media sale of harmful skin lightening products, need to be torch-lighted,” Benson added as she went on to suggest the need for thorough investigation into another bubbling sector of the beauty industry labelled as “organic skin care”.
“Say ‘NO’ to skin bleaching; your natural skin tone is beautiful, do not let anyone tell you otherwise,” she advised.