Despite the overall message of the dangers of skin whitening product use, the popularity rises annually among the industry's main targets: women of colour, who account for approximately 80% of the consumers. Deeply rooted in colourism, this practice remains a significant part of some beauty routines. Skin whitening is using beauty services or products to lessen the quantity of melanin, or pigment, within the skin to make it seem lighter.
For centuries and even thousands of years, the elite used colours and powders to create a smoother, lighter look, unaffected by illness and the darkening and turbulent effects of the sun. In many cultures, the lighter the skin, the better the beauty and outlook of work, marriage, and social status. Moreover, lightening skin has long been associated with wealth and status, as workers work in the sun and the wealthy are indoors, the lingering after-effects of slavery.
According to Globe Newswire, the global skin lightening market is projected to reach US$11.8 Billion by the Year 2026 possibly. In 2020, the market was worth an estimated whopping US$8 Billion. Furthermore, the sale of creams is projected to rise to US$6.5 Billion by the end of 2026 due to their popularity pushed by their easy application process, lower price, and efficacy.
As part of their "White Lies" series spotlighting skin whitening culture globally, international news outlet CNN investigated the workings of the black market in Rwanda. Like several African countries, including Ghana, and Côte d'Ivoire, the Rwandan government banned the sale and manufacturing of cosmetics and hair dyes made with damaging chemicals such as hydroquinone and mercury. However, this has only driven the industry into the black market and is extremely expensive.
Consistent users of skin-lightening creams known as "mukorogo" in Rwanda are forced to turn to illegal sellers, who are not only scarce but also wary of who they sell to because of the harsh punishments that come with being caught. If caught, offenders face up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to five million Rwandan francs (around US $5000).
Police rely on tips informing them of the people selling the illegal products to restrict the distribution of products. Random raids are enacted in shops and markets. Police confiscated around 13,596 products in 2020, increasing the number to 39,204 units seized in 2021.
Yolande Makolo, the Rwandan government spokesperson, told CNN that the ban yields tangible effects. "These products can only exist illegally: the amount is small," she said. "The awareness about how harmful these products are is high," adding that the use of the products has become more taboo. However, Makoro acknowledges that Rwanda still has a way to eliminate the whitening habit because generations still believe that fair skin is better than dark skin.
Unfortunately, besides the illegal trade of these products, others resort to making their harmful concoctions. For example, a former user-turned-community activist Gerry Mugwiza relayed that many are making their creams using hair products and liquid soaps.
It is apparent that the effects of colonisation, racism, colourism, and globalisation plague Africa, its people, and how they view themselves. Deeply ingrained into their psyches and passed down from generation to generation, the idea that lighter skin is more desirable has created a self-conscious and self-destructive society. In addition, the media reinforces unattainable standards of beauty, further creating inferiority complexes within women (and men), who in turn become worryingly insecure and desperate for quick fixes. While banning these products provides a way forward, a total social transformation should be a long-term goal.