Skin lightening products trade thrives despite health dangers

• By a Correspondent

Extra-Clair, Peau Claire, Ketazol, Diproson, Movate, G&G, Maxi-Light, Caro Light, Skin Light, among others. These hydroquinone-filled beauty products are constantly seen on display in several African shops, streets and marketplaces and are said to be selling like rare commodities.

Skinacea, which defines hydroquinone as a skin lightener used in many whitening creams and dark mark fade treatments, said it reduces the production of melanin in someone’s skin and is great for fading hyperpigmentation, acne marks, sun spots, melasma and other skin decoloration issues.

And the above mentioned products and many others not cited here, which are mostly used by black women to lighten (or bleach) their skins, are found in some households in sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of their social status.

Budget and laws of attraction

“When you are drawing your weekly or monthly budget, you have to allocate something for the purchase of these products. They are as important as bread, sugar, and electricity bills in the house,” Nigeria-born Adaora Ezeonu said.

“I grew up with a very dark skin, which I believe made me look ugly and unattractive. I told myself the moment I finish school and start working, I would start using these products to lighten my skin and be noticed. And it worked out very well. Today I’m married to a nice man and I’m happy. Why would anyone want to make skin bleaching look like a political issue?” she asked.

A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report said that 77% of Nigerians use skin lightening products on a regular basis. This West African country is followed by Togo with 59%, South Africa with 35%, Senegal with 27% and Mali with 25%.

Research also shows that skin lightening use is also rife in the two Congos, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Benin, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Many men in the DRC and Congo Brazzaville – rich and poor, politicians, celebrities – use these products to make their faces glow, look handsome and get noticed by women. They call it ‘aspect’.

As a result of this ‘aspect’ culture, there are a lot of ‘passport’ people in the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville (people whose faces are light in complexion but whose hands, arms, legs, necks and feet are pitch black.)  “A light-complexioned woman will likely be noticed among the crowds than a dark-skinned woman. Just imagine that you were born dark but beautiful and how will you look at the moment you start using hydroquinone?” Kinshasa-based Jocelyne Mpoyi said.

Hydroquinone’s side-effects

Many women’s faces in Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Conakry and Niger, where summer temperatures reach about 40 degrees, have turned greenish and reddish – instead of yellow or white as they wish. Experts believe that the fact that users apply the creams in the morning and expose themselves to the scorching sun could be the cause of their skins turning reddish, greenish and even bluish.

“It’s advisable to use the product in the evening and sleep with it, and wash the face and put nothing as you go out in the morning. Using it under high temperatures is prejudicial to both the skin and the health in general,” Dakar-based Amina Diop said.

While hydroquinone has been found to be very effective for treating hyperpigmentation issues, studies have shown that it has some carcinogenic effects when applied to the skin, according to Skinacea.

“It is considered cytotoxic (toxic to cells) and mutagenic. Studies have also shown that long term hydroquinone use can cause exogenous ochronosis, which is when your skin turns a bluish and black color. Hydroquinone not only inhibits melanin production to help lighten skin, but long term use can actually damage your pigment cells.”

Other side-effects of hydroquinone use include, according to Skinacea:

• Increased exposure to UV radiation

• Sensitivity to sunlight

• Increased risks of getting hyperpigmentation

• Contact dermatitis and skin irritation

• Thick, leathery, and bumpy skin

Due to the hydroquinone’s side-effects, which are said to have ruined lives and cost governments a lot of money, some countries have reportedly begun to ban the manufacture and import of beauty products that contain hydroquinone.

But many users are angry about this decision.

“Politicians should take care of more important issues than wasting their time on minor issues like hydroquinone. Many Africans are hungry, have no jobs, no decent toilets, houses or health care centres.

“Instead of doing something about it, no, they sit down all week discussing how to ban the sale of hydroquinone products. It’s unfair,” Angola’s Paula Ribeiro said, adding that every woman wants to be unique because competition is tough out there.

Lucrative market

Despite the dire consequences of regular use of skin lightening products, the trade is booming all over Africa. Ivory Coast, though SIVOP Company, is so far the continent’s largest manufacturer and exporter of hydroquinone products.

Dozens of trucks can be seen every day leaving this West African nation to deliver millions of boxes to other West African countries, where some stocks will likely be exported to Central and East African countries.

The DRC, through Ghandour Cosmetics and Angel Cosmetics, is also a big supplier of these products in East and Southern Africa.

A DRC woman, who has been exporting skin lightening products into Southern Africa for the past 15 years, said: “Sometimes, it’s not easy to go through with them, but we always manage to find our way. Border post agents in Africa are severely underpaid and are always looking for extra money to fill their pockets.

“Don’t you see these products being displayed in the streets and shops of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Harare, Luanda, Lusaka and other SADC cities? They are there because of us.”   τ

January 2016
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