When black is not beautiful

Shamiso Yikoniko Extra Reporter —
Whoever said black is beautiful? Why then are men and women turning to skin bleaching and running away from beauty? The result — light skins and distinct black patches around the knuckles, knees, elbows and the skin covering the Achilles tendon, just above the heels. In very rare instances, the creams have resulted in beautiful skins; but the rest of the cases have been disastrous.

Various names have been coined for people who are altering their skin complexions with “Yellow-bone” seeming to be the most popular one at the moment.

“Coke-Fanta” aptly captures the different skin shades that result from the use of skin lightening creams. Medicines Control Association of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) director general Ms Gugu Mahlangu said skin lighteners are illegal in Zimbabwe.

“The Authority has reason to believe that most of the medicines are being smuggled across the borders into Zimbabwe,” she said.

“Sadly, the source is not always divulged.”

Ms Mahlangu said numerous arrests have been made since most contraventions regarding medicines are criminal in nature.

“The penalties being given to these perpetrators are not deterrent enough,” she said.

“A number of raids have been conducted by the police but this has not been exhaustive. A lot more still needs to be done.

“Public awareness is key in curbing this trend,” said Ms Mahlangu.

Cross-border traders usually re-package the skin creams into body lotion bottles that are allowed into Zimbabwe so as to avoid detection at the borders. Popular skin lightening creams include Movate, Diproson, Clearton, Bu-tone, Betasol, Lemon-vate, CaroLight, Jaribu, Extra Clair, Epiderm, Bio-Claire, G ‘n’ G, Mediven and Top Lemon for women; Ambi Extra Complexion Cream and Mr Clere Cream for men.

Most of the creams contain high levels of skin damaging substances such as hydroquinone and mercury. A tube of Diproson or Movate currently costs US$1 whilst a bottle of Extra Clair or Carolite is going for US$3 on the streets, in salons and flea markets.

According to vendors, the market for the creams is growing, especially in Harare; and the skin lighteners have become overnight money-spinners as some Zimbabwean cross border traders seek to satisfy the growing demand. A vendor who identified herself as Ms Tariro Mucheki, who has erected her make-shift stall along Robert Mugabe Street in Harare said business is brisk.

“I used to sell tomatoes in Mbare but I have turned to selling these creams because I am making more money now. As long as there is a market I will continue to sell these products. On a good day I get a minimum of US$30,” she said.

Asked if she is not concerned on the likely side effects of the products, Ms Mucheki said, “It is not my concern. Whoever chooses to use the creams should be aware of the risks.

“As for the police, that comes with the life of hustling, you should always be prepared for any eventualities.”

Due to their adverse side effects, the creams were banned under the Dangerous Drugs and Substances Act in 1980 by the Drugs Control Council of Zimbabwe which is now called Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe.

Ms Mahlangu warned that chemicals used in the manufacturing of skin-lightening creams are harmful to the skin. According to online research, skin lighteners containing hydroquinone and mercury ingredients cause skin irritation, nail discolouration and hyper-pigmentation — dark and discoloured facial skin.

World Health Organisation (WHO) banned the active ingredients of skin lighteners — hydroquinone and mercury — from being used in any regulated skin products.  Unregulated products have significantly higher quantities of the two components when compared to those recommended by dermatologists.

“Medicines used for skin lightening purposes can contain steroids that cause some serious long term effects on the skin and are also absorbed into the body, causing serious effects on the body’s hormonal system,” she said.

“Some skin lightening preparations have agents that have been associated with certain cancers,” Ms Mahlangu warned.

Health experts warn that using skin lightening creams could lead to liver and kidney failure. There is also a risk of skin cancer because the melanin synthesis which protects the skin against ultraviolet radiation is inhibited by hydroquinone. However, the skin lighteners’ effects are usually seen after four years of use.

A dermatologist who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said chemicals contained in skin lightening creams interrupt the production of melanin, therefore reducing pigmentation.

“The ingredients in skin lighteners interrupt the production of melanin in order to reduce tanning and pigmentation of the skin,” said the expert.

“This often results in skin cancer later on in life due to the exposure of skin cells to ultra violet (UV) radiation.

“My advice to those who use skin lightening creams is that they should only use them under special circumstances. They are extremely dangerous,”advised the expert.

Local dermatologists say they now have more patients whose skins have been damaged after years of bleaching — which is irreversible most of the time.

“I’m getting patients from all over the country, they need help with treating ochronosis. There is very little we can do to reverse the damage,” said one dermatologist.

A survey conducted by The Sunday Mail Extra revealed that most users of skin lightening creams are not comfortable discussing their reasons for skin bleaching or having their pictures taken.  A Harare man who refused to be named professed ignorance on the dangers of using skin lightening creams.

“I have been using skin lighteners for the past five years but I haven’t encountered any problems. I prefer using them because they remove blemishes and make my skin clear,” he said.

Mrs Diana Makombe of Mufakose said the skin bleaching creams restored her confidence. She however, pointed out that she is cautious in using them.

“The only problem is that I am now enslaved to the product. If I leave it I develop rashes and dark patches,” she said.

Mr Simba Nyerere of Highlands said those using the creams are suffering from ‘complexion complex’.

“My definition for ‘complexion complex’ is the inability to accept and appreciate the darker skin tones and a disturbingly particular preference for lighter skin,” he said.

“The source of our ‘complexion complex’ stems from our interaction with Europeans. We were fed the delusion that to be white is superior and thus, many of us aspired to be as close to such superiority as possible.

“White women are still considered the ultimate symbol of beauty world over and I personally have a problem with that.”

A snap survey conducted by this publication established that men generally prefer lighter women, and most women consider their lighter counterparts to be more attractive.

As a result, many are trying to alter their complexion, with disastrous consequences. The use of skin lightening creams was rampant throughout Africa from the 1930s to the late 1970s, when many governments took a stance against all cosmetics containing high levels of hydroquinone and mercury.

In the 1970s, there were many black women with lighter faces and darker legs in the then black townships.  In Nigeria, the use of skin lighteners is known as ‘yellosis’ or ‘yellow fever’.  The trend is described in many different ways across the continent.  In Mali and Senegal, the terms ‘caco’ and ‘xeesal’ are used while in Ghana the term ‘nensoebenis’ describes the condition of the skin after chronic use of the creams.

WHO has reported that Nigerians are the highest users of such products with 77 percent of Nigerian women using them on a regular basis. Togo is second with 59 percent, South Africa third at 35 percent and Mali fourth at (25 percent). Demand is also high in Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya where advertising has targeted young women.

South Africa has strict laws against skin lighteners and even banned the use of words bleach, lighten and whiten in cosmetics advertisements. Nevertheless, the industry is still thriving on its streets.

Besides the ban on the damaging cosmetics, which have also been outlawed in Kenya and Tanzania, their use has become widespread, due to the prevailing belief among both men and women that a lighter complexion is more attractive and is associated with better hygiene.

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