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Skin-lightening or bleaching is a common practice not only in Africa but in parts of Asia and the Middle East

Skin deep

Another African nation bans popular skin-whitening creams

May 12, 2015

Last week, the Ivory Coast banned all skin-whitening creams and lotions over fears that the cosmetic products can cause long-term health problems, BBC News reported. A statement from the health ministry advised that “Cosmetic lightening and hygiene creams … that de-pigment the skin … are now forbidden,” according to The Guardian. The ban is primarily aimed at unregulated whitening creams and lotions that contain mercury and its derivatives, cortisone, vitamin A, or more than two percent hydroquinine, a lightening agent that is used to develop photographs.

“The number of people with side effects caused by these medicines is really high,” Christian Doudouko, a member of Ivory Coast’s pharmaceutical authority, told BBC News. Skin cancer is believed to be a side effect of the products, Doudouko added, citing other health complications including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Whitening creams and bleaching products are widely used as a popular beauty treatment in many parts of the world. In Africa, usage is believed to be most widespread in Nigeria, where more than 75 percent of women purchase and use the cream, according to a report in The Independent that cited a 2008 U.N. study. Nigeria is followed by Togo (59 percent), South Africa (35 percent), and Mali (25 percent), the report found.

As dermatologist Elidje Ekra from the Treichville university hospital in Abidjan explained to The Guardian, “In our cultures, some people think women with light skin are the most beautiful. This beauty standard … pushes many girls to de-pigment their skin.” He referred to the advertisements on billboards in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, showing models with lighter-than-average skin. “What we see in the media is the lighter one’s skin is, the better one’s life,” he said.

Ivory Coast is not the first country to impose a ban or take action against the products. In South Africa, products containing more than two percent hydroquinone have been illegal since the 1980s. Nevertheless, as the South African lifestyle site IOL reported last year, a study conducted by the University of Cape Town found that more than a third of South African women are still buying and using the products, which are being sold on the street.

Outside of Africa, the sale of skin whitening products has not yet been outlawed. They are hugely popular in Asia, including in India, where a fair complexion is often vaunted as the epitome of beauty and associated with affluence and glamour, according to the website Asian Scientist.  Indians commonly associate dusky, dark or tanned skin with menial work in the fields under the sun, a vestige of the outlawed but lingering caste system in India. Such stigmas exist in other societies too: “Black people are seen as dangerous,” Jackson Marcelle, a Congolese hair stylist living in South Africa who regularly uses skin lightening creams, told the BBC in 2013.

In August 2014, India’s Advertising Standards Council, a self-regulated entity, issued a new set of guidelines banning all ads depicting darker skin in an inferior light, Digiday reported. According to that report, AC Nielsen estimated the “fairness” cream industry to be worth about $432 million. Indians spent more money in 2012 on the 233 tons of skin-whitening products they consumed than they did on Coca-Cola, reported The Hindu. There were even ads for vaginal bleaching washes as early as 2012.

The practice of skin whitening isn’t limited to women. Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan came under fire for endorsing the skin-lightening cream Fair & Handsome, a product sold by Indian cosmetics giant Emami. And actor Hrithik Roshan has stepped in as the product’s second celebrity brand ambassador, according to Dawn News.

Activists and women Bollywood stars have spearheaded social movements against the products and advertisers. In 2013, Nandita Das launched the  “Dark is Beautiful,” movement, a campaign to celebrate “beauty beyond color.”

In Dubai and other parts of the Middle East, skin whitening cosmetic surgery has become a sought after procedure. Speaking to The Christian Science Monitor, feminist scholar Sonia Nimr from Birzeit University in Palestine said: “For centuries there’s been an image that if you’re pale or whiter, it means you’re a lady.”

The phenomenon crosses borders with waves of immigrants: It turned up in a Korean community in New York City last year, when a Korean skincare brand sparked controversy with a billboard that raised eyebrows. Elisha Coy’s new Always Nuddy CC Cream, a tinted moisturizer containing “skin-whitening” properties featured a pale model and the question, “Do You Wanna be White?”