For decades some African women have reached out to any variety of products to make their skin lighter, often paying a high price in the process. For some, being lighter is simply a beauty choice, but for others, it is all about Africans feeling uncomfortable in their own skin. Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE explores
The thought of changing your skin colour might seem bizarre, but for many people, skin-lightening creams and treatments are part of a daily skincare routine.
Many agree that the desire to be lighter has deep psychological roots, stemming mainly from colonisation and the subsequent historic exclusion of positive narratives about dark-skinned people in popular media and entertainment.
In the 1980s, as more African societies gained access to Western media, the need to be lighter gripped the continent, creating a market for manufacturers of skin lightening creams, soaps and ointments.
Manufacturers are blamed for perpetuating the perception that only light-skinned women are desirable, attractive and successful and that being light-skinned is a passport to wealth and romance.
There are two types of whitening creams – those that ‘lighten’ and those that ‘bleach’. Bleaching creams contain harsh chemicals that inhibit the production of melanin, and quite rapidly make the skin whiter. Lightening creams, however, do not necessarily contain these chemicals, but will promise to lighten the skin with long-term use.
While the popularity of skin lightening has generally declined from the rage in the 1980s, the various creams and ointments still find demand in the market, as seen recently when two Zambian women were arrested at the Gaborone Bus Rank for selling unregulated creams.
Part of the resurgence in demand for skin lightening has been driven by social media where the perception that ‘light is right’ and ‘black get back’ is a dominant theme. Men on social media shout loud and long about their preference for ‘yellow bones’ (light-skinned females) reinforcing views that being light makes one more desirable.
Under pressure, young Batswana women turn to the various creams available. While the few who can afford them are able to access approved beauty treatments, the majority are forced to turn to unregulated products sold in places such as the bus rank, where all manner of harmful ingredients lie in wait.
At the Gaborone Station, near the Broadhurst Route 1 and 2 combis, a thriving market exists for skin lightening creams, apparently run by Zezuru traders.
“Sorry mama, o batla thuso? Re na le dilo tse dintsi tse di siameng le tsa letlalo tota,” says one of the Zezuru traders, seated by a table with a few sweets and soaps.
She leads me to a corner where from within a trunk she produces soaps and Carolite cream.
“This is good for your skin. You can use it together with the soap to have a radiant and smooth face. If you want a lighter complexion, you can use the soap and cream on your body. To avoid spending too much, you can mix the cream with your normal body lotion. It works well for me,” she says confidently.
The trade and the products fall below the radar of the Ministry of Health and Wellness and other authorities. The products and their side effects are untested. The women who sought skin lighteners in the 1980s remember being burnt to the extent that even today, it is easy to tell who used the products then.
Today’s consumers from places such as the Bus Rank and Station are in the same danger.
Health ministry spokesperson, Doreen Motshegwa, however, says action is being taken to rein in the trade. She says recently,
“Examples of these skin lightening creams include Movate cream, Diproson cream, Maxilight cream, Carolite cream and soap, Bio-clare products, Extraclaire products, Lemonvate cream, Top-gel, Mekako soap, G&G products, Epiderm cream and Epiderm lotion.”
“Skin lightening creams mostly contain hydroquinone, mercury and corticosteroids. Hydroquinone inhibits the production of melanin, which gives the skin its colour and protects it against UV radiation, therefore the body may compensate by producing more of melanin, which may result in an even darker skin, damage of the skin’s elasticity and liver damage.
“It also increases the risk of skin cancer developing from UV radiation,” she explains.
According to Motshegwa, one particular ingredient in many of these creams is equally dangerous.
The chemical known as corticosteroids, if misused, can cause skin thinning, stretch marks, easy bruising and visible veins. It also increases the risk of infections, sores and boils.
Mercury found in these products accumulates in the body and may damage the liver and the brain which may lead to serious health issues.
Hydroquinone and steroids are medicinal products that should only be used under doctor’s instruction.
Motshegwa says there are various reasons why women are opting for skin lighteners.
“Some use them to remove localised blemishes, to look lighter in complexion and to remove visible birthmarks. In most cases people want to have a lighter complexion, which they associate with beauty.”
Motshegwa cautions that the skin is a vital organ that releases waste from the body. The skin cools down and heats up depending on the environment, prevents excessive moisture loss and over hydration and should therefore be treated carefully.
Melanin, the pigment behind black people’s skin colour, is vital and any efforts to inhibit it increase the risk of skin cancer.
“All cosmetics to be applied to the skin must be pre-approved by Ministry of Health and Wellness. The approval process includes evaluation of the Material Safety Data Sheet and a sample of the product among others. These are evaluated to check and rule out presence of medicinal components such as steroids, bleaching agents such as hydroquinones, mercuric components and others in the product to ensure safety.”
Gender activist, Gomolemo Rasesigo says the reasons behind skin lightening are multi-faceted.
Some women do it because they have low self-esteem and are not comfortable with their own skin while others simply prefer to be lighter.
“Magazines also play a major role in instilling the perception that being light skinned is associated with beauty,” explains Rasesigo, who is also Gender Links’ country manager.
“Some young women use skin-lightening products because of peer pressure and want to be part of the masses. I would advise young women to be comfortable in their skin. Accept who you are as long as it does not affect your health.”
She advises women who are keen on using skin lightening products to research the health implications before using the products in order to avoid negative consequences.
“We have bigger issues to deal with in life, which include raising the girl-child and ensuring that she becomes economically independent instead of dealing with bleaching our skins. Let’s work on growing ourselves into independent citizens.”