The phenomenon of skin lightening: Is it right to be light?
South African women continue to use dangerous skin lightening products‚ decades after tests confirmed that some ingredients cause chronic side-effects. Some chemicals commonly used to bleach skin have been banned yet they still find their way into the hands of consumers in South Africa.Research published in the latest edition of the South African Journal of Science cites a recent study of 600 women of African and Indian ancestry in which 33% confirmed using various cosmetics to lighten their skin. The study was done in South Africa."The motivation driving the practice is often the desire to lighten one’s skin because of a perceived notion of increased privileges‚ higher social standing‚ better employment and increased marital prospects associated with lighter skin‚” said the journal."This perception‚ coupled with influential marketing strategies from transnational cosmetic houses using iconic celebrities‚ increases the allure for women primarily‚ but also increasingly‚ men."Unfortunately‚ the main fear is that the presence of these legally available products could potentially cloud the distinction of the consumer between products that are tested and those that are damaging and illegal‚" the study found.It was compiled by researchers from the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town‚ Division of Dermatology at Groote Schuur Hospital and Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University in the US.Encouraging the destigmatisation of dark skin‚ randomly testing cosmetics for dangerous substances and imposing penalties on manufacturers are some of the proposals flagged by the authors to curb the use of illegal skin lightening products.The study warns that extensive use of these skin lightening products can result in a condition resulting in permanent dark spots on the skin.Television personality and actress Khanyi Mbau recently made headlines for using an intravenous skin-lightening treatment between her toes and knuckles which prompted calls for an urgent investigation into the safety of the product.Popular and bannedDespite their potentially toxic effects‚ the application of topical skin lighteners remains popular throughout the African continent and has grown in the Caribbean‚ Asia and the Far East‚ said the study. The underlying reasons for this growth are varied but are strongly linked to historical racism‚ perceived benefits of lighter skin and the marketing expertise of cosmetics companies.Many countries in Africa‚ including Uganda‚ Kenya‚ South Africa and Gambia‚ have banned skin lightener products. Ghana‚ Zambia‚ Jamaica and Ivory Coast have promoted public health education to dissuade people from using bleaching creams.“Despite numerous countries in Africa making a concerted effort to stop the chronic use of skin lightening products through national bans of constituent compounds such as hydroquinone and mercury‚ there still remains an inconsistent level of regulation within the sector‚” said the study.Partly to blame for their continued use on the continent is the products being classified as cosmetics rather than drugs‚ product labels failing to list all of the ingredients and even misbranding.“Most African countries have regulatory organisations. In South Africa‚ the watchdog organisation is the Cosmetic‚ Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CTFA). This association‚ as in other African countries‚ controls the policies relating to labelling and regulation and should work closely with governmental sectors relating to importation and availability of products. Unfortunately‚ the current status quo seems to be a lack of enforcement of existing regulation – a topic that needs to be addressed at the governmental level‚” said the study.But the researchers warned that governments could not tackle the issue through policy changes alone.Among the strategies proposed to initiate real change‚ was the need to advocate for the “destigmatisation of dark skin” and putting pressure on cosmetics manufacturers to change their concept of beauty and discourage skin bleaching."There is an urgent need to implement policies and recommendations for preventing the influx and illicit sale and use of untested skin lighteners‚" the researchers said.They also called for new strategies to force the cosmetics industry to be more compliant‚ including random tests on products and penalties for their producers.“The concept of beauty is a tentative and sensitive issue.”