Warning: Skin Bleaching Can Cause Deformities in Babies and Cancer

Advert Billboard For Skin Restoration. Source: NAN
Advert Billboard For Skin Restoration. Source: NAN

The crave to look good on social media and the drive to have better skin appeal in movies has given rise to men and women using bleaching agents; more disturbing is the fact that mothers now also apply bleaching substances on children skin.


When Dr. Isima Sobande heard of bleaching substances being applied on babies, she did not take it serious but rather dismiss it as an urban myth until a mother brought a 2 months old baby to a health centre in Lagos with the baby crying in pains.

“He had very large boils all over his body,” the soft-spoken 27-year-old Nigerian told AFP.

“It seemed like they weren’t normal.”

The boils on the baby were as a result of the mother applying a mixed steroid cream with shea butter on the skin of her baby to whiten the skin of the baby.

“I was very appalled. It was distressing,” said Sobande.


Selling bleaching creams and lotions has become a lucrative business among Nigerians because of the high demand for them with many entrepreneurs getting involved in home production and in most cases without getting certification from the relevant regulatory agencies such as NAFDAC.

“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.”


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.”

“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.”


The range of products have increased so much that tens of millions of people in Africa given raise to equivalent increase in suppliers and service providers.

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. Recently a Swiss company in Nigeria called Nestle was reported to also considering exploring the skin health products sector but it is not known if bleaching creams will be among the range.

“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”.

In July, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority issued a statement telling pregnant women not to take glutathione pills to bleach their unborn babies saying that there may be “serious toxic side effects” such as “asthma, renal failure and chest pains.”


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stresses that it has not given approval for any of the injections on the market today.

“These products are potentially unsafe and ineffective, and might contain unknown harmful ingredients or contaminants.”

Those who start using skin lightening say they invariably stay with the practice.

“Before you know it, it has become some sort of an addiction where you want to maintain that look,” said Dabota Lawson, a Lagos socialite and cosmetics entrepreneur.

“Just like with plastic surgery, it begins to feel like it’s never enough.”


In Nigeria, the creams are assembled by a legion of cosmetologists and sold at a price anywhere from 5,000 naira to 20,000 naira ($14-55, 12-47 euros), a prohibitive amount in a country where the minimum wage is just 18,000 naira ($50, 42 euros).

Instagram skincare star Pela Okiemute’s “Russian White” body cream claims to give “firmness, intense beauty and a mixed race complexion”.

His “Cleopatra Royal” cream, whose label features Elizabeth Taylor in her famous role as the Egyptian queen, promises to “lighten and radiate”.


Customers should start seeing results in two weeks, says Okiemute, explaining that his creams, which include collagen, kojic acid and “anti-ageing” snail slime are safe, though he declined to divulge his formula.

“We have a lot of customers who have used a lot of wrong products, they come to us and we give solutions,” he says.

He flicked through his phone to show before-and-after photos of a client who had a problem with dark knuckles, a telltale sign of a skin bleacher.


Intravenous injections and pills of glutathione — an antioxidant naturally found in the body that has a lightening side effect — are the new frontiers of skin bleaching.

At his clinic on the outskirts of Lagos, beside an abandoned Chinese restaurant, plastic surgeon Aranmolate Ayobami charges clients 150,000 naira ($415, 350 euros) for a five-week course of glutathione injections.

Known as the “Buttmaster” for helping patients seeking an hourglass figure, Ayobami buys the injections from companies he trusts in the United Arab Emirates or the United States.

He only gives certain dosages for a limited amount of time, he said.

But sometimes clients will bring in their own cheaper product that they bought online and urge him to inject them. “We try to discourage that,” he said.


If many millions of Africans lighten their skin without regret, others are dismayed.

“Skin bleaching is one manifestation of folks trying to get power and privilege aligned with whiteness,” said Yaba Blay, a researcher at North Carolina Central University.

“We’re seeing folks attempt to be perceived as having more value because of their complexion.”

Recent black movements are trying to challenge that perception.

#Melaninpoppin, a hashtag celebrating black skin, and the smash-hit movie “Black Panther,” which featured an almost all-black cast wearing African-inspired outfits and natural hair, are held up as testaments to a shift away from longstanding Eurocentric standards of beauty.


But whether the tide of opinion is turning in Africa itself is another question.

“The truth for me was that my beauty was more accepted abroad than at home,” said Ajuma Nasenyana, a model from northern Kenya, who has walked for Victoria’s Secret and Vivienne Westwood.

“In the African industry the lighter your skin tone the more beautiful you are. Hopefully the industry is changing and starting to appreciate darker skin.”

Sobande, the doctor, said, “We’re living in a more positive environment than a few years before.

“But it’s going to take a lot of effort to change the mindset.”


Source: NAN

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