The dangers of skin bleaching and the quest for whiteness at all costs

We have all seen them, women with skin that seems almost translucent. So much so that you can almost see their internal organs or is the ones with chemical burns on their cheeks and knuckles. All thanks to skin bleaching. Currently, skin-lightening or bleaching has reached epidemic proportions in many countries worldwide especially in Africa. Nigeria currently has the dubious honour of being the skin bleaching capital of the world, with an estimated 77% of Nigerian women using skin-lightening products.

However, skin bleaching is not new and cuts across ethnic lines and timelines. Due to scarring from smallpox  Queen Elizabeth, the first of England famously used lead as a skin whitener which of course poisoned her over time. With African women, skin bleaching became popular in the late ’50s and early 60’s following independence most likely as a consequence of colonisation.

skin bleaching -Queen Elizabeth
Source: Modern southern

The market for skin bleaching

The skin bleaching industry is worth $10 bn globally and is expected to grow to $23 billion by 2020. In Nigeria, the cost of skin lightening products varies from a few hundred Naira for a cream or soap to thousands of Naira for professional treatment. Unfortunately,  increasing westernization has caused the popularity of skin lightening products to skyrocket. This has spawned the release of skin bleaching creams like ‘’Whitenicious’’ launched by Cameroonian-Nigerian pop star Dencia. Despite being branded as a treatment for hyperpigmentation, the sales of ”whitenicious” were driven images of Dencia, dark-skinned before and significantly lighter afterwards.

skin bleaching -dencia

More recently in 2018 American stripper Black Chyna also launched a version of the product even visiting Nigeria to promote it! This is a clear indication of the popularity of the product even with the relatively high price tag.

The idea that fair skin equates to beauty is deeply ingrained in many cultures and darker skin associated with dirt or poverty. This preference for light skin is expressed subtly or blatantly and plays out in pop culture. Usually with the villain having dark skin or features and the protagonist the opposite. Unfortunately, women tend to bear the brunt of this and women with dark skin perceived as undesirable as seen below.

Since most skin lighteners contain products that are dangerous to health, the preference for light skin comes with tremendous health consequences. Even more worryingly is that women actively seek out products with harmful ingredients, because they are perceived as more effective.

How skin bleaching creams work

The colour in your skin is due to the pigment melanin produced by melanocytes in the skin. This provides protection against the harmful effects of UV rays. Skin whitening creams slow the production of melanin in the skin’s outer layer. This reduction in melanin production exposes the skin to the harmful effects of UV rays which are especially important in Nigeria which has intense sunlight all year round.

The Dangers of bleaching your skin

Skin bleaching agents cause significant health risks when used over long periods of time. In Nigeria, skin bleaching products are largely unregulated over-the-counter creams, home remedies or a mixture of multiple creams. The use of these substandard products that contain hazardous chemicals result in scarring and burns and the main offender’s responsible are

  • Mercury
  • Hydroquinone
  • Corticosteroids

Health complications

Most of the consequences of skin bleaching are associated with the toxic compounds above and cause cancers well as severe skin conditions. These side effects may be internal or external. Internal side effects include kidney and liver failure or cancer while external side effects include eczema, severe acne, pigmentation problems and skin infections. Bleaching also affects the skins ability to heal after injuries or not at all after prolonged use.

Mercury

Mercy is one of the commonest chemicals used in bleaching creams and soaps. As a heavy metal, it is easily absorbed but not easily removed. Some of the short side effects of mercury in lightening products include rashes and skin discolouration. While long-term exposure has more serious health consequences including kidney, brain and reproductive system damage. All of this may ultimately lead to organ failure, fertility issues and delay in brain development of an unborn child if used when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Hydroquinone

Skin products with 2% hydroquinone are sold over-the-counter while 4 % hydroquinone is with a doctor’s prescription only. Despite the wide availability hydroquinone should not be used over long periods due to its side effects. These side effects include dermatitis (skin irritation), rashes, excessive redness and dryness of the skin. In extreme cases when used for extended periods it can induce “ochronosis” a condition with blue-black darkening in certain areas of the skin. Like other lightening products, it makes the skin more susceptible to the sun’s UV rays.

skin bleaching-ochronosis
source:curerator.com

Hydrocortisone

Many skin lightening creams contain steroids, with doses up to 1,000 times higher than in creams used to treat skin conditions. When used for treatment use of steroids is strictly supervised and the use restricted to less than 4 weeks to avoid side effects.  This is one of the most common methods of skin bleaching in Nigeria, with women adding steroid ointments into their body creams for their skin lightening side effect.

skin bleaching

Long-term use of steroids leads to thinning of the skin, acne, red permanent stretch marks and increased hair growth. Even worse the steroids act like cortisol a stress hormone which leads to Cushing’s syndrome when in excess in the body. This is characterised by a swollen face and abdomen, weight gain, easily bruised skin, stretch marks,  high blood pressure, osteoporosis and depression.  

Use of steroids leads to lead to a lack of cortisol production because it is provided by the bleaching cream.  So don’t stop using these ointments abruptly taper off gradually. This allows the body time to restart producing the hormone it naturally. The use of steroids slows downs the skin’s natural regenerative process making the epidermis (outer skin layer) making it more susceptible to ageing. Thinning skin is more susceptible to physical damage from normal activity, increased susceptibility to sun damage and other problems of pigmentation.

Glutathione

This is the new kid on the block and is seen as the modern alternative to bleaching creams. However, it is not without challenges especially when taken intravenously or orally. Like all the other there is the risk of sun sensitivity and skin cancer as well as unwanted side effects on the nervous system. Because it is a recent addition to the skin bleaching arsenal the long-term effects of Glutathione have not been studied and may cause significant problems down the road.

Natural Alternatives Skin lightening agents

Although most chemical-based skin lighteners cause serious health concerns, there are some natural lightening ingredients which suppress melanin production but are non-toxic with less, not zero side effects. Some of these ingredients include arbutin, emblica, liquorice, mulberry extract, kojic acid or Vitamin C.

Progress

As much as there has continued to be a preference for fair skin, there has also been push back with women like Nyakim Gatwech (Queen of the dark) and Khoudia Diop (Melanin Goddess) gaining popularity. In Nigeria, other initiatives” figurekeight’‘ from actress Kate Henshaw promotes natural black beauty. As the pursuit of fair skin beauty as a beauty standard continues to plague many cultures. We need to understand the dangers to our health ruined by the pursuit of light skin and end the stigmatisation of dark skin.

I know this is a sensitive topic, I would like to know what you think? Have you bleached your skin? what were your reasons for doing so and was there anything that would have prevented you from doing so? What suggestions do you have to address these issues? Let me know in the comments or write me an email, i will respond.

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This article was first published on Beauty in Lagos but has been updated

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