Skin lightening is now a trend. Sometime during the week, I suddenly started craving peppered grilled fish and I realised at that point that it had been a while I touched base with my local supplier. As I got into the premises he waved from a distance and made his way towards me.
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There was something strikingly odd about his appearance as he approached and it took a minute or so for me to actually place it. It was his complexion. His face was significantly lighter than the last time I saw him and it was so unsettling that I did not even know when the words came out of my mouth. ‘Are you bleaching? I blurted. He smiled as he tried, albeit in futility, to hide his embarrassment by my directedness.
Nigeria And Skin Lightening
Nigeria is officially now the global capital for skin bleaching or skin lightening or toning or whatever name you decide to coin for the unhealthy practice. The World Health Organisation has recognised our immense role in the growth of the human vanity industry as it has ranked us number one in the world with 77% of our women using one form of skin lightening or whitener or the other. We beat Togo to second at 59% a few years back.
I even think a more localised Togolese study would show that Nigerians are a big chunk of this 59% but that is me just being cynical. Traditionally, it used to be largely a female problem but the men seem to have also caught the vanity bug as the trend in skin lightening has been noticed to be increasingly common amongst Nigerian men.
The industry is recording remarkable growth understandably. It was estimated to be worth $10 million globally last year and this is further projected to hit almost $20 million this year, almost double its current worth. This can be explained by the gradual uptake in the male market in addition to the already established female market. This growth of the skin-lightening market would be laudable but for the baggage, it comes with in terms of long-term health toll on consumers.
Skin Lightening Agents And Their Effects
The commonly encountered skin lightening agents contain the notorious hydroquinone, mercury, and steroids. They usually work by either blocking the production of melanin, the substance responsible for the dark colour of the skin, or by causing skin shedding or peeling till lighter layers are exposed.
Skin lightening isn’t always bad as doctors occasionally prescribe it for certain skin conditions that cause hyper-pigmentation. Outside these, the use in these parts, which is the majority, is entirely aesthetic. By some unfortunate misconception that only foreign things are the best, including skin colour, we have created a health monster that is surreptitiously waging a war on quality of life and life expectancy in Nigeria. Just for beauty!
There is a certain order to about everything in Nature. We are adapted to our tropical environment where the sun and its ultraviolet rays are in direct contact with our skin almost all year round. To ensure our bodies do not absorb these ultraviolet rays uncontrollably, Nature developed melanin in our skins to serve as a natural sunscreen.
In fact, research suggests that the risk of developing skin cancer is about 1000 times higher in albinos, who genetically lack melanin from birth. It then becomes easier to comprehend the danger of artificially ridding the skin of the protection offered by melanin by bleaching.
I used to work in a clinic in the heart of Lagos Island which, if Nigeria is the global capital of skin lightening or bleaching, is the very shrine of the skin whitening deity.
I was manning the E.R one morning when a middle-aged ‘yellow’ lady was rushed in with a fairly extensive laceration on her leg from an okada accident and I immediately knew she would require a closure of the gaping wound with stitches. As we commenced the procedure, we found to our dismay that the sutures tore so easily through her skin making suturing harder than normal. Each bite we took on each side of the wound just didn’t hold. Eventually, we managed to close the wound and she was to return for wound dressing later.
I was not surprised by the poor condition of her wound when we inspected it a few days later. Her healing was very poor and was complicated by infection and breakdown. This was expected given the self-inflicted damning integrity of her skin. Local research done in 2008 at LUTH by the Dermatology department showed that skin lightening or bleaching significantly impaired wound healing in blacks.
There are several rebound pigmentation problems that can occur following unchecked skin bleaching. One of such is the ‘Bleach Panda Effect’ coined from the characteristic look of the Chinese Panda where the skin around the eyes is significantly darker. Again, if you are familiar with Lagos Island, you can probably relate to this.
Adverse Side Effects Of Skin Lightening
Another very common adverse effect is the uneven build-up of pigmentation around the extremities of the body like fingers, toes, and other joints. You just nodded in acquiescence, didn’t you? This is probably the easiest way to identify people bleaching in Nigeria. We even have memes on social media to this effect.
Ochronosis is a permanent skin disfiguration where there is a blue-black discoloration following protracted skin bleaching. It is untreatable.
Mercury is a heavy metal that the human body does not handle well at all. Unfortunately, it is a potent skin lightening agent and is a common component of many preparations. It is poisonous to the human nervous system and kidneys. What this means is that in sufficient amounts, it will lead to psychosis, hallucinations, and renal failure.
The liver is also not spared in this onslaught. The World Health Organisation rates mercury as one of the top ten chemical substances of major public health concern. It is even more worrying that many people mix different agents for additive effects, meaning they could be pounding their bodies with unhealthy doses of hydroquinone, mercury and steroids without even knowing it.
How skin lightening can be controlled
Hydroquinone was banned in Europe many years ago – this is in a place where the drug control was hitherto quite strong and you could hardly walk into a pharmacy to get certain medication without prescriptions.
The government in Ivory Coast issued a blanket ban on all skin whitening products in 2015 and there are reports that Ghana is set to do likewise.
There is an agency saddled with the responsibility of monitoring drug consumption in Nigeria called the National Agency for Drug and Food Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and it is essential that they live up to the responsibility of protecting Nigerians even from themselves. A lot of education and reorientation will be required to correct a flaw in general thinking that ‘white’ or ‘yellow’ is more beautiful. The agency must as a matter of urgency draw up a working plan to rid the country of such unhealthy practices. There are beauty parlours all over the country where ‘mixing’ takes place openly.
The family unit is also critical in this fight. It is a sad reflection of parental failure that people grow up with the conception that they can only get ahead by their cosmetic appearance. Perhaps, also a reflection of a societal failure given that families are microcosms of societies. It tells what we place value on as a society.
It is shameful that we still assess the value and worth of people based on their skin tone and texture as against the quality of their mentation and character. It will take a lot of work to correct the notion of white supremacy, especially given our colonial history and this is where the family unit is crucial.
Sorry, the government can only do so much in this case. Knowing Nigerians, a ban will not stop the products from reaching the dressers in Nigerian bedrooms. This one, I’m afraid, is entirely up to us – Nigerians. Unfortunately, the government will be blamed for not providing adequate healthcare facilities when these adverse manifestations occur in the future.
Nigerians are Negroids. We just need to be comfortable in our own skin, literally. We need to be reassured that we are good enough, just as we are and were made. Nothing more, nothing less.
Go here for NHS guide to cosmetic procedure.
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Photo Credit – CNN