Stephanie Findlay –
Dr Isima Sobande was in medical school when she first heard of mothers who bleached the skin of their babies.
She dismissed it as an urban myth. But it wasn’t long before she saw it with her own eyes.
At a health centre in Lagos, a mother brought in a two-month-old infant who was crying in pain.
“He had very large boils all over his body,” the soft-spoken 27-year-old Nigerian said. “It seemed like they weren’t normal.”
The baby’s mother explained that she had mixed a steroid cream with shea butter and slathered his skin with it in order to make it whiter.
“I was very appalled. It was distressing,” said Sobande.
Shocked, the young doctor now takes a different view on skin bleaching, also called lightening or whitening.
For many Nigerians, it is a “standard procedure,” a gateway to beauty and success, she said.
“It’s a mindset that has eaten into society. For a lot of people, it’s the path to getting a good job, having a relationship.”
Skin lightening is popular in many parts of the world, including South Asia and the Middle East.
But medical experts say that in Africa — a continent where regulations are often lax or scorned — the widening phenomenon is laden with health risks.
Cultural watchdogs, for their part, see it as the toxic legacy of colonialism.
Africa is experiencing a “massive trend of increased use (of skin bleaching), particularly in teenagers and young adults,” said Lester Davids, a physiology professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
“The older generation used creams — the new generation uses pills and injectables. The horror is that we do not know what these things do in high concentrations over time in the body.”
Where statistics about Africa’s skin-bleaching industry exist, they are often old or unreliable.
But evidence from the range of products, suppliers and services points to a continent-wide market that may number tens of millions of people and possibly more.
In Nigeria alone, 77 per cent of women — by extrapolation, more than 60 million people — are using lightening products on a “regular basis”, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in 2011.
Experts say the African market is rapidly expanding as companies seek to cash in on the continent’s booming youth population.
“More clients want insight on the lightening market,” said Rubab Abdoolla, a beauty analyst at market researchers Euromonitor International.
The rich tend to opt for pricier registered products which are available in standard doses.
Others are likely to buy creams, often bootleg concoctions mixed in the back streets, that may be dangerous and are blatantly sold in defiance of official bans or constraints.
Ingredients may include hydroquinone, steroids, mercury and lead — the same element that, at high doses, poisoned Elizabethan courtiers who powdered their faces ivory white.
“These chemicals damage respiratory, kidney and reproductive systems,” an official from the Nigerian drug control agency warned. “They cause cancer, affect the nervous system, deform unborn babies.”
In spite of the risks, authorities are struggling to control the bleaching innovations, which include a compound called glutathione, taken as injections or pills.
Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya have all banned skin bleaching products with high amounts of hydroquinone and mercury, with the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa urging people to “reject all colonial notions of beauty”. — AFP