By Sola Ogundipe
‘You dey bleach O, you dey bleach, yellow fever. You dey bleach O, you dey bleach, yellow fever…” This was the way the late Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti expressed his own reservation about African women, particularly Nigerian women, who indulge in the controversial habit of skin bleaching.Fanta face, Coca-Cola body”, is one derogatory expression often used to describe the habitual skin bleaching individual. Today, maintaining lighter skin tone has more or less become the norm for the average Nigerian woman. From Lagos to Maiduguri and Sokoto to Port Harcourt, the story is the same.
There are so many instances of popular and respected women (and men too) from all walks of life who indulge in the habit of bleaching their skin in order to get a fair complexion. The incontrovertible fact is that in Nigeria, people use skin bleach products a lot.
Recently, the World Health Organisation, WHO, declared that 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products – the world’s highest percentage. It was a daunting report. But it may not be a surprising outcome considering that the quest for fair skin is an obsession within the black race that dates far back in time just as the history of society placing a high premium on lighter skin tone is as old as the hills.
It is not uncommon for a man to brag about his wife’s beautiful fair complexion or for a woman to make claims of being “beautiful” based on her light-coloured skin. Almost communally, there seems to be an unwritten agreement that a woman with lighter skin is the epitome of beauty. At times like this when there is something captivating, arousing and exotic about being fair skinned, the expression “black beauty” seems almost inappropriate and obsolete.
Worried by the heightening dangers and abuse of skin lighteners in Africa, a task team on the Prevention and Education on Skin Lightening Abuse in Africa, recently called for sustained public advocacy programmes on the dangers of using skin-bleaching cosmetics. Rising from the 4th African Ethnic Skin and Hair in Nairobi, Kenya, the team tasked African government agents to take appropriate steps to restrict access to bleaching products containing harmful components such as hydroquinone, mercury, phenol, resorcinol, and all forms of corticosteroids.
In a statement, a member of the team, Dr. Frances Ajose of the Dermatology Department, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, Lagos, described skin bleaching as a major challenge to all dermatologists in Africa and deserves urgent political action due to the devastating consequences of skin cancer, ochronosis, fungal infections, acne, and striae.
Governments were urged to implement strict measures to remove all known skin-bleaching cosmetics from over-the-counter shelves in addition to educating the youth about the dangers of skin lighteners while heavy penalties were recommended to be imposed on companies that continue to manufacture the implicated products and advertorials promising fair skin as a symbol of beauty and use of fair-skinned models to promote cosmetics that target the black market should be restricted or at least discouraged. On July 4, 2013, Kanebo
Cosmetics Inc., the Japanese cosmetics colossus and one of Asia’s largest manufacturers of skin lightening products, announced a massive recall of its products that were designed to lighten skin tone but, instead, caused a blotchy complexion.
Concern about this incident becomes paramount when it is considered that the bulk of skin bleaching creams on sale in Nigeria are smuggled into the country from Asia. Yet regulatory agencies tasked with regulation and controls of these products appear helpless to redress the situation.
At open stalls in Ikeja, Oshodi, Ojuelegba, Yaba, Idumota and Obalende all in Lagos, the market for bleaching creams booms. Popular skin toning products such as Top Gel, Skin Clear, Skin Light, Skin White, Crusader, Tura, etc., are selling like hot cakes. Even lesser known but cheaper brands are up for grabs. Unlike Caucasians and other Westerners who have an affinity for tanned skin, Nigerian women, and to a much lesser extent, men, are perpetually on the hunt for the best skin bleaching products. Indeed, the quest for a milky while complexion is an obsession.
Why do people bleach their skin? VF went to town to seek random responses from people on the streets of Lagos. Responses varied; however, what stood out was the perception that almost every person that bleaches the skin does so because they want to look attractive and well-groomed. Blessing, an unmarried 27-year-old banker, uses skin toning creams to give her skin a lighter tone and brighter complexion. “Life is about choices and I have chosen to become light skinned. My complexion is what you can describe as middle-tone, not really dark and not really light, but I do not mind being light-skinned, not because it is better, but as a matter of choice,” she argued.
Kemi, a 41-year-old mother of three, has been using one particular brand of skin bleaching product for over a decade. “I don’t know about others, but I’m naturally fair-skinned as you can see, I only use the creams once or twice a week to remove unsightly skin discolourations such as age spots, melasma, and things like that from my face, arms and legs. That is not bleaching is it? I do not bleach, please,” she noted with a laugh.
Feyi who suffered acne problem as a teenager feels justified. The acne left her face full of small brown spots which she hates with a passion. The saving grace is a skin toning product that hides the blemishes by making them lighter. Now she feels a lot more comfortable among others. Toyin was planning to get married when she began “toning” her skin. “In the world of matrimony, there are demands. I did not have any particular skin issue, but I desired a smooth and good complexion. I needed to look my best. Any girl looking out for a bridegroom wants to be attractive. A good skin toning cream gave me what I wanted, so what’s the big deal?”
Vera’s story is no different. Even as a middle-aged mother of three who works hard for a living, her dream is to remain desirable as a mother and wife, and yet be as eye-catching as she can get on the professional front. Vera bleaches her skin, and has no problem with the result. Her excuse for this indulgence is that it effectively hides the tell-tale wrinkles and fine lines of ageing.
However, the reality is that relatively safe skin bleaching agents are hard to come by. Dermatologists say using a skin bleaching treatment or cream makes the skin much more sensitive to the sun and sun exposure, raising the risk of skin cancers and other adverse reactions. While most skin bleaching agents can effectively reduce the appearance of all types of skin discolorations, not all skin bleaching or skin toning creams are the same.