In today’s Nigeria, it is not uncommon to walk past your classmates or course mates without recognizing them. Sometimes, it takes a second or third look to actually tell that you knew the person standing before you in the past.
The reason is not far-fetched. The rising bleaching trend among Nigerians has become a source of concern to men and women. In some cases, people find it difficult to recognize their neighbours or those they had relationships with in the past because they are now fairer than they used to be.
The bleaching fad or skin-lightening trend has also caught up with Nigerian celebrities. Their followers on various social media platforms have called many of them out for bleaching and excessively lightening their skins. Even though many of these celebrities deny it, the internet is full of their before and after pictures to prove otherwise.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation released a report on bleaching that did not really surprise anyone. According to the report, Nigeria has the highest number of women bleaching their skin in Africa. Nigeria polled a whopping 77 percent compared to Togo’s 59 percent.
Even outside the country, in far places like Dubai, business is booming for people who sell, among other cosmetics, skin lighting products. In our part of the world, one in every 10 dark skinned persons is now a patron of bleaching products, whether consciously or not.
In the past, some African countries actually banned the sale of many whitening cosmetics in their country, but Nigeria remains the home of the skin bleaching business, with many cosmetologists trying to outdo one another with their whitening products.
You see them in the market, in shopping malls and in different corners selling and mixing different skin lightening creams for young girls, married women and even men who want to change their colour. These creams do their jobs but sometimes, they fail, giving rise to burns.
The twist these days however is that many of these beauticians claim that their lightening creams, serums and soaps are natural lighteners as they contain natural ingredients. But many people are still skeptical about how natural it is to turn from black to white in a matter of days. Some people fear that such claims cannot be true but just a business strategy.
Some of these ladies who have used bad bleaching products are easily identifiable by the uneven patches of darker skin fading away and the dark colour still retained by the joints, the elbows and knuckles. Those who successfully bleach look almost ghostly, because even with the new skin tone on top, there is an underlying layer of dark skin that makes them look slightly off-colour.
Usually, the preferred method is to use lightening lotions, serums and soaps. Some may use stringent facial cleansers, body scrubs, and even anti-fungal creams in order to bring out their inner beauty. In the booming marketing of bleaching products, there are some drugs such as glutathione tablets designed to help flush out impurities and lighten the skin from the inside out. Many young girls swear by glutathione tablets and vitamin C tablets for whitening their skin.
Skin bleaching at a glance
Skin whitening, skin lightening, and skin bleaching refer to the practice of using chemical substances in their attempt to lighten skin, tone or provide an even skin complexion by reducing the melanin concentration in the skin.
Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proven to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles, adding to the controversy surrounding their use and impacts on certain ethnic groups.
Most skin-lightening treatments reduce or block some amount of melanin production. Many treatments use a combination of topical lotions or gels containing melanin-inhibiting ingredients along with a sunscreen. Depending on how the skin responds to these treatments, exfoliants either in the form of topical cosmetic or chemical peels may be used.
There are various mechanisms described for achieving this. Inhibiting tyrosinase activity reduces the synthesis of melanin so that as existing skin cells are naturally exfoliated, keratinocytes with less melanin are eventually brought to the surface, giving the skin a lighter, more even toned complexion. Thus, daily use of these creams combined with minimization of exposure to the sun is required for persistence of the lightening effect.
Skin bleaching or lightening is a global phenomenon; however, in recent years, the practice has come under fire because of its potential negative health effects and association with colonialism and self-imagery.
Demography of those bleaching
Initially, the bleaching trend surfaced among the rich, and upper class Nigerians who could afford to spend cash on their many bleaching creams and soaps just to feel superior to others. The use of their expensive assorted cosmetic formulations became prominent. But today, it has become almost an all comers affair. Undergraduates, teenagers and men have joined the bandwagon of skin bleaching just to belong.
Like drugs, many Nigerians are getting hooked to it. Nigerian men and women who bleach their skin are growing in their numbers. You see them in their posh cars, in super-markets or shopping malls; in well-appointed offices, in the aircrafts and even in the boardrooms, among many other places.
When you visit the popular Yaba market in Lagos or Ikeja market, you will see many shops devoted to mixing skin whitening creams for young girls between the ages of 17 and 20. The number of University of Lagos undergraduates who patronize the women in Yaba market because they want to be fairer than their friends will also overwhelm you.
But in recent times, the number of middle-aged women who bleach their skin is on the rise. According to a popular cosmetologist at Yaba market simply known as Mama Tega, married women now compete with young girls when it comes to bleaching. She noted that these women are afraid of losing their husbands to fair young girls, hence the need for them to step up their games too.
Health implications of Bleaching
There is evidence to suggest that some types of skin-whitening products use active ingredients such as mercurial chloride and hydroquinone, which can be harmful. Hydroquinone had been banned in Europe. However, it is now available again but only when prescribed by a medical doctor. This is also the case in many other countries, where a doctor for certain skin conditions can only prescribe hydroquinone.
Bleaching has several dangerous medical consequences. Hydroquinone, a bleaching agent found in most skin lightening products, suppresses the production of melanin, reducing the skin’s natural shield against the sun’s ultraviolet rays increasing the risk of skin cancer. It also penetrates the skin and causes damage to connective tissue, inducing premature aging.
Mercury, another toxin found in bleaching creams, causes cancer. Bleaching brings out rashes and unsightly blotches on the skin surface and weakens the skin so that it cannot be stitched when cut. If the chemicals are absorbed in the bloodstream they can cause organ failure and brain damage.
We are toning, not bleaching
But many of these Nigerian men and women who bleach deny doing so. They would readily tell you that they are not bleaching but rather toning their skin. While some look good in their new skin, others simply appear funny and ridiculous in their newly acquired complexion.
Bleaching these days has become the fad for many people. It is a way they make themselves appealing and acceptable to the opposite sex too. In addition to body bleaching creams, there is also the use of specialized cosmetics that brighten their skin in days, weeks and months.
A young lady Kemi whose skin has bleached beyond its elasticity said that there is a difference between toning and skin bleaching. Even the creams have it indicated on their leaflets if they are meant to bleach or slightly tone the user’s skin to attain its real glow.
She argued that her cream is meant to lighten, tone and clear dark spots. It doesn’t bleach. But she failed to provide explanations for the green veins evident on her arms and legs, which were standing out like sore thumb.
Corroborating her, Chinenye Philips, a clothier, stated, “bleaching is different from toning. And there is nothing wrong with bleaching if you can find the right cream for your skin type. The key is to find the proper cream or mixture that would interact well with your skin. You see, my skin type interacts well with a mixture I discovered three years ago.”
Cosmetologists are smiling to the bank
Kemi Adefeso, a cosmetics dealer in Lagos, said that she had to use her body to market her skin bleaching and lightening products. She revealed that it was hard to tell people how effective her products were until they started seeing the effects on her skin too.
“Body bleaching is part of body enhancement to look trendy and youthful, and it is only when you can conveniently and constantly afford it that you can bleach your body. People bleach their skin all over the world, so it is not only in Nigeria. But I use my bleached skin to market my products. It works and my customers are happy.’’
Adefeso added that “we are living in a jet world and everybody, whether young or old, want to look modern, fashionable and attractive. Because of this age desire to belong, many people including those who are not rich or too wealthy, try to go with the fad just to feel good about themselves.” She said that for the women in particular, body bleaching is regarded as part of their beauty routine. But they have to spend money to get the body that they desire. Her creams cost between N5,000 and N10,000 depending on what her customer wants and how fast they wish to transform from black to white.
Another cosmetologist Ifeyinwa Obinwa at Ikeja market, Lagos was seen attending to a middle-aged man whose skin was bleached recently in her shop. He was flustered when he saw how other women around were looking at him. He quickly purchased his cream and soap and dashed out to avoid piercing looks from those in the shop. When he left, she said that their girl friends and wives who are equally into bleaching introduced many men who are bleaching their skin into it.
Ifeyinwa stated that many middle-aged men and women who bleach, do so mostly because they still have their eyes on younger women and men. The men in particular are those who marry more than one wife. So they have to keep up by lightening their skin to be more attractive. This set of people can use anything you tell them to use just to belong and she also makes money from them in the process too. She has skin toning soaps that cost between N3,000 and N10, 000 as well as creams that cost between N8,000 and N20,000.
A middle-aged woman who simply identified herself as Francisca, is a self-styled beautician at Tejusoho market, Yaba, Lagos . She operates a burgeoning business as teenagers, young ladies and middle-aged women race to her shop for bleaching creams, soaps and tablets because her prices are relatively cheap compared to others around. While she plays the role of a general overseer, she allows her teenage daughter to also learn the ropes of the business by taking charge of it sometimes.
Everyday, mother and daughter engage in a lucrative routine of mixing creams for neighbourhood housewives, undergraduates and teenagers for as little as N2, 500 and as much as N6, 000. They also provide home services for some of their customers who cannot get to the market because they are busy at work during the week.
With her dark knuckles contrasting with the colour of her face as well as the red patches on the side of her face, Francisca argued that she wasn’t a casualty of her many bleaching creams. She blamed stress and staying under the hot weather for her wrinkled and deteriorating skin. But she boasts of being the best in the market as her customers are always satisfied with their skin colour after using her products.
The booming market
Besides established skin bleaching product line manufacturers, contemporary beauty circuits are currently blooming with the emergence of self-styled skin care and bleaching specialists. Many women and girls now concoct their own treatments or purchase products from self-styled beauty experts offering special creams, soaps, or lotions.
The famous glutathione injection is valued between N100,000 and N300, 000 for high end users. However, to guarantee the effectiveness of the treatment, users have to also buy and use glutathione capsules regularly. The capsules cost between N30, 000 and N50, 000, disclosed Stella Egodi, who is currently undergoing the glutathione treatment at an exclusive spa in Lekki, Lagos.
Further findings revealed that new fascination with skin bleachers and the status-enhancing whitening treatment has caught on in the upscale social circuits of Lagos. Predictably, dealers of skin lightening products have emerged with beauty parlours springing up within and about exclusive and commercial nerve centres of the city. Many of these spas and skin bleaching parlours often promise a lighter, radiant and spot-free complexion for clients at specified rates.
The dangers of prolonged use of bleaching creams
Prolonged use of bleaching agents, with the loss of the protective effect of melanin pigment, combined with sun exposure can theoretically lead to an increased risk of skin cancer, according to Gloria Okeke, a dermatologist.
According to her, incessant use of skin whiteners also causes premature aging as the harsh chemicals in the creams cause serious damage to the elastic fibres of the skin. Hydroquinone causes a paradoxical increased pigmentation of the skin, called ochronosis. This results from pigment deposition in the deeper parts of the skin.
Other complications include eczema, as these agents are often irritating to the skin. With steroid use, the main side effect is the increased risk of skin infections, for example, fungal infections and scabies. There is also skin thinning, with the development of stretch marks and acne. Furthermore, with the uncontrolled use of steroids on the skin, individuals may experience poor wound healing.
With the use of more potent steroid creams, applied over a large body surface area, there is a risk of systemic side effects, including the development of high blood pressure and diabetes. Mercury agents12 when applied to the skin in sufficient quantities can be absorbed leading to mercury poisoning, which is manifested by a range of symptoms, including psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems. Mercury is highly toxic, and sustained exposure to it can lead to neurological damage and kidney disease.
Systemic side effects of some of these agents including mercury poisoning may also be observed in babies if pregnant or breast-feeding women use them. According to local dermatologists, skin lightening disrupts primary innate immune function of the epidermal skin leading to susceptibility of the users to systemic infections since lightening creams used for long duration, on a large body surface area and under hot humid conditions enhances absorption.