Humans have always been obsessed by tampering with their looks to improve and enhance their beauty among which is skin lighting. It is a phenomenon that has existed in the world for centuries.
But in Africa, skin lightening comes with connotations of European standards of beauty, colorism, racist undertones, and low self-esteem. With skin-lightening comes a plethora of health dangers to the skin that target users of skin lightening creams.
Almost the whole continent underwent decades of colonial rule and this profoundly changed social relations in terms of skin color. White supremacy as forcefully asserted on the Africans, meant that the color white was the embodiment of cleanliness, beauty, privilege and a desirably good life.
Everything associated with the color black was denigrated and rendered evil. Racial slavery was brutal, especially to the mind of the colonized. The colonized came to view the color of their skin with deep resentment, for it was that color that thrust their lives into an infinite miserable existence with no hope of respite.
The desire to become equal with white standards of beauty pervaded the minds of the colonized, particularly the women. Lighter skin is now perceived as the epitome of beauty, social capital, and economic status.
But skin lightening cannot purely be attributed to the racial slavery that came with colonialism alone. The practice of enhancing one’s looks by changing the color of their skin existed since the times of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
In China and Japan skin lightening was a common feature among the elite women. The patterns started to change during the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, where skin color was the sole determinant of who was free or enslaved. As such, melanin-rich hues were regarded as inferior, and ugly – and that political situation made some black folks desire to get rid of their melanin to be equated with white standards of beauty. Skin lightening creams began to be produced on an industrial scale.
It has generally been accepted that when one decides to bleach/lighten their skin, it is not necessarily a matter of strictly desiring the color change. But with that color change comes easy access to things they would not have easy access to had they maintained their melanin-rich skins – privileges easily accessible to white people is what the black folks who bleach desire. Be it economic status, looking uptown – in the subconscious these are the factors that drive people to bleach their skin. The need for the “purity” that was initially exported by white women. Gaining power and privilege associated with being white was one of the initial factors that drove the skin lightening industry wild.
The figures on skin lightening in Africa reveal a big problem when it comes to how beauty is perceived on the continent. The World Health Organization claims that 77% of the women in Nigeria actively use skin lightening products, making Nigeria the largest consumer of these products. Countries such as Togo, South Africa, and Senegal also rank high when it comes to using skin lightening products. On average, 40% of women in Africa bleach their skin. Worldwide, the skin lightening industry is worth billions of dollars. It is not a phenomenon confined to Africa only – Asia-Pacific also makes up a large part of the global skin lightening industry.
The conversation around skin lightening products is incomplete without addressing the adverse health effects that users ultimately suffer from. The application of these skin lightening products has metamorphosed - the intravenous application of glutathione, a natural antioxidant produced by the liver, is gaining some popularity among the users of these products. Shingi Mtero, who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching at Rhodes University in South Africa said that injectables are extremely dangerous.
He said they “are the most dangerous available now, partly because you do not know what is inside the injections … and many are buying from informal markets.”
Some pregnant women in Ghana have been using glutathione to lighten the skins of their babies in utero. But Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority sternly warns it has not approved any glutathione products either for oneself or “in the form of a tablet to lighten the skin of an unborn child.” These are the extents being reached in attempts to lighten one’s skin.
Mercury was one of the most common ingredients in the initial manufacturing of skin lightening creams. It subdues the production of melanin and exfoliates the outer layers of the skin via the production of hydrochloric acid. Mercury, in the form of ammoniated mercury, became the most preferred ingredient for making one’s skin better, as it often treated skin infections and dark spots on the skin.
Its harmful effects would be published too. But the environmental effects and health impact called for stringent conditions on the use of ammoniated mercury. The horrific case of mercury poisoning in Japan revealed mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetic products. By 1973, the US had banned all trace amounts of mercury in cosmetics, followed by other countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and many others in Europe. But this was to be replaced by another active ingredient – hydroquinone.
Hydroquinone is a depigmenting agent that lightens one’s skin. But its side effects include dermatitis (skin irritation), blue-black discoloration and even blindness. Overuse of skin lightening creams leads to the weakening of the skin. Some African countries have moved to ban skin lightening products which include Rwanda, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Some manufacturers put the harmful ingredients in their products and will not list the names of those banned ingredients.
It is time we revise our norms of beauty in line with our various unique cultures. Men desire light-skinned women, but these notions have to change so that people fully love themselves in their skin color. Light skin gets other people opportunities that may not otherwise be availed to those who do not have light skin. Banning skin lightening products should be accompanied by robust conversations around beauty and skin color. Colourism, the preference for lighter skin, in one thing we need to do away with.