By Louvier Kindo Tombe
Alvine will always shed tears silently whenever she comes across a nursing mother playing with her child. This has been going on for over one (1) year now.
“Seeing a mother and her child makes me remember my daughter who died when she was only four months old”, Alvine said.
The 35 years old girl from Cameroon in central Africa lost her child seven (7) years ago. To her it was a normal phenomenon untill early last year when she attended a seminar on the effects of some cosmetic products to humans.
“When i was told that cosmetic products especially skin lightening products are dangerous to the human body and how they affect unborn children, i Immediately recalled how my little angel suffered before she died”, Alvine told us weeping as she recounts the story of the death of her only child.
“It was as if the presenter was telling but my story,” she continued.
Since that discovery, Alvine has never been herself again. She lives in guilt believing that she is responsible for the death of her child. It is still difficult for her to overcome.
“Little angel was innocent, it was my fault, I never knew my actions could affect her,” she said weeping in her two rooms apartment in Yaounde, political capital of Cameroon.
Alvine, like many other Cameroonian girls, was addicted to skin bleaching products during her days as a university student in the University of Yaounde 1.
Skin lightening, whitening, and bleaching practices are prolific in black and brown communities throughout the world, but they have had a particular strong impact in Africa.
In Central Africa, the phenomenon is widespread. Most of those who practice it are women in their youthful ages. Some men are equally noted of skin bleaching practices.
Most women in Africa believe that beauty is incomplete if their skin remains black. They would go to greater lengths to transform their natural dark skin color to a lighter one by bleaching it with chemicals, soaps, lotions, and other products.
Alvine is one of those women who have used almost all the products available in the market. She said “whenever I saw a friend using a different product from mine, I would do all to try it”. “I actually wanted to be top in my generation,” she added.
In 2011, the World Health Organization reported that 40% of African women bleached their skin. In Nigeria, 77% of women engaged in skin bleaching (the highest in the continent and the world at large). In Togo, 59% are reported to be actively involved in skin bleaching practices. South Africa has a record of 35%, Senegal 27%, Mali 25%, and In Ghana, the prevalence of skin bleaching is reported to range from 30–65%, predominantly among females.
Doctors who have studied the phenomena of skin bleaching in Africa have concluded that most women who bleach their skins are calculative in their decisions.
In Cameroon, like in other African countries, most, if not all those who are into skin whitening practices do so to impress others or follow fashion.
How it started
Alvine was the only dark skin girl among her friends in the University. She had always envied them. She wanted to look like them but did not know what to do until one day when they went shopping and she discovered the secret from her friends. Alvine still remembers the day she took the decision to bleach her skin.
“We were passing by a cosmetic shop besides the university when Danielle, my room mate dragged me in, and the shop owner convinced me that I have a wonderful skin colour which if polished, I will be the talk in the campus,” she remembered adding that “it was the beginning of the academic year and everyone wanted to look good“.
Alvine actually did not have money but her friend negotiated the product for both of them. She accepted the offer because it was a challenge among the students.
“I kept the product home for over a month but actually decided to start using it to impress a classmate whom I loved but he fell in love with, and dated my friend with a lighter skin over me,”
Every bleaching practice, it should be noted has a story behind.
Joanne, a level 300 student at the Siantou University Institute in Yaounde, Cameroon, on her part, had a dream of being a model. She missed on several occasions to be selected as candidate for beauty contest in the university, and to her, it was because of her dark skin colour. “only fair skin girls were always selected during contests“, she said.
Dream turned sour
Dangerous skin bleaching has become a public health crisis across the world.
Dr. Aghogah Philemon in Cameroon says “there is no health benefit to skin bleaching”.
“Results are not guaranteed and there’s evidence that skin lightening can result in serious side effects and complications,” he continued.
From a medical standpoint, there’s no need to lighten the skin. Skin bleaching reduces the concentration or production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment produced by cells called melanocytes. The amount of melanin in your skin is mostly determined by genetics.
Medics say most cosmetic products found in Africa often contain dangerous substances that can lead to serious physical ailments. These products, both legal and illegal, often come loaded with hazardous chemicals, such as hydroquinone and mercury.
Some skin bleaching creams made outside of the United States have been linked to mercury toxicity. Mercury has been banned as an ingredient in skin lightening products in the United States, but products made in other countries still contain mercury.
These substances lead to discoloration, damaged skin, kidney damage, and birth defects, including neurological damage in early childhood. The products also contain highly potent steroids, and are mostly marketed in the African continent.
“We are worried about the impact it can have on children during early childhood development, given what we know about neurological problems caused by mercury exposure. Many consumers are unaware of the dangers associated with the use or misuse of these products, leading to tragic consequences,” a Neurologist at the Yaounde Central Hospital who preferred not to be named told News Upfront.
His explanations tie with the story of the daughter of Alvine.
Alvine’s little angel had actually suffered from neurological complications few months after delivery following medical reports.
People with dark skin have more melanin. When you apply a skin bleaching product to the skin, such as hydroquinone, it decreases the number of melanocytes in your skin.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source
issued a notice that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognized as safe and effective. The products were deemed not safe for human use based on a review of evidence.
Case studies and reports have also linked the use of skin bleaching products to contact dermatitis.
This is inflammation of the skin caused by contact with certain substances.
The situation in Cameroon recently took a different twist, when some actors in the sector brought in beauty drinks; another form of skin bleaching products.
These beauty drinks have come to add to the list of known bleaching products like intravenous injections, pills and corrosive skin products which women have particularly relied on to change their skin color.
The beauty drinks have been on sale in the country for nearly a year now. Other African, American and European countries are noted for marketing the beauty drinks too.
The rush for these products is quite evident indicating that the industry is undoubtedly booming in the country.
Many manufacturers of these products are making brisk business and milking desperate women of millions on a daily basis.
“Skin Bleaching products costs black and brown communities their money and health”, says Amira Adawe, executive director of Beautywell Project which is fighting against bleaching.
In our society, women experience a greater burden and pressure to look beautiful. This is the primary reason hair products and extensions, skincare and make-up products are the largest and most lucrative segments of the global cosmetics market. Of course, these segments are targeted at and dominated by, female consumers.
More African women, especially in the middle class, now have more spending power. Higher education is allowing many middle-class African women to pursue promising careers. As a result, more women on our continent have the extra income that gives them the spending power to spend on the latest fashion trends, thereby attracting the attention of beauty companies
A fruitful dangerous market
For centuries, we have been told by the beauty, fashion, and movie industries that lighter skin is more desirable and more beautiful.
“I noticed that in Western films and music, fairer skin girls are seen as the ideal and more beautiful than dark skin girls. I wanted to look more like the people that I saw on television during my youthful age,” Delphine, a housewife in Cameroon recounts.
Most Africans believe that darker skin is associated with unsatisfactory traits such as inferior beauty, education and social class. In other words, darker skin is stereotypically associated with a life of economic disadvantage and struggle.
Some African societies implicitly benefits those with lighter skin, and represses those with darker complexions.
This toxic idea that darker is somehow less than and the very real consequences of colorism have created the market for skin-lightening products.
“Consumers of bleaching products, wanting fairer skin, believe they will achieve a higher level of social capital, be seen as pure and more desirable for marriage”, Serge Aime Bikoi, a sociologist from the University of Yaounde 1 said.
“Anecdotally, the appearance of lighter skin to them will mean faster and easier access in landing higher paying jobs, particularly in sales and marketing,” he continued.
While there are some protections in this deregulated industry, the market has also been infiltrated with counterfeit or lower quality products that have especially high concentrations of these dangerous chemicals.
The African cosmetic industry in figures
As the second most populous continent in the world, Africa actually has an enormous market potential. After a sluggish start, beauty companies are beginning to recognise this, and ramping up activity in the continent.
Africa’s beauty market is one of the most lucrative businesses today. According to market research, it is estimated that the beauty industry in the Middle East and Africa was at about $27.1 billion in 2018.
The majority of the market and growth is located in sub-Saharan and West Africa, with Nigeria leading the way.
Nigeria replaced South Africa as the largest economy in Africa in 2014, and is in the top 25 economies in the world. With a population of more than 206 million, there is a forecast to become the third most populous country in the world by 2030.
The personal care and beauty market in Africa is a multi-billion dollar industry, with annual increases of close to 10%, global growth languishing at around 4%. The African market is expanding at more than double the pace.
With improving technology, it’s now possible for companies to identify the amount of sales and interest that arises from Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa. Many beauty companies have identified a gap in the market and have found an enthusiastic audience for their products in Africa.
Three-quarters of the population in sub-Saharan and West Africa according to reports is aged below 30, the demographic which is the most likely to be interested in beauty products, perfume and hair care.
Nigeria is just one example of this, having achieved strong population growth with an uptick in the young, urban, female population. The middle-class is also rapidly expanding, and with exposure to western influences, there is a new appetite for personal care products and fashion.
Although the large economies of Nigeria and South Africa have been leading the way, other African nations are also following the same trends like Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya.
A legacy of colorism
The success of skin bleaching and the proliferation of bleaching products across the continent can be attributed to a number of factors rooted in racism, colorism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
“This is a racial equity issue,” Serge Aime noted. Beside being a new form of colonialism, “it is also a gender issue“. He added.
The complexity of the phenomenon calls for multifaceted actions.
Doing what it takes to put an end to skin-lightening products
The news in Cameroon now is about the beauty drinks that have been on sale in the country for over a year.
The promoter of this beauty drink is a Member of Parliament in Cameroon, madam Nourane Fotsing, of the CPNR political party.
Adverts made on the new product recently sparked controversy even within the ranks of the government.
“The way these products are marketed, am afraid it might cause more victims,” Alvine said.
To her, “the trend must be reversed“.
Alvine is one of the many Africans, victims of skin bleaching who have become activists against the practice.
“I don’t want my sisters to go through what I experienced just in the name of getting beautiful,” she said.
Alvine recently created an association with the aim of fighting against skin bleaching in Cameroon.
“I want my story to be heard and used as a message to young girls who are into skin bleaching practices,” Alvine said.
She continued that “the struggle can only succeed if done collectively“.
Most actors in the Cosmetic sector in Cameroon believe that the problems with some products starts from the production phase through the distribution phase to the consumption phase.
“The sector has been infiltrated by non expert,” Michel Nkenfack said.
Michel Nkenfack is the President of the National Association of promoters of cosmetic products in Cameroon, better known by its French acronym (ANAPROC).
ANAPROC is the biggest association in Cameroon promoting cosmetic products.
“We have people who have joined the cosmetic sector just to make money, and they care less about the wellbeing of consumers,” Michel told this reporter.
To reverse the trend, ANAPROC has been organizing workshops and sensitization caravans to identify and fish out fake actors. The association believes that the proliferation of counterfeit or dangerous products in the country is the handiwork of charlatans.
“Most of the controversial cosmetic products in the market are produced by non experts who do not master their job and the exact composition of the different products”, Mr. Thiam André, promoter of SOCAPCO, a cosmetic production company in Cameroon said.
If at the level of production there is a problem, it is evident that the other stages (marketing and consumption) would also be facing challenges.
If consumers are confused with usage and dosage, the blame fall partly of the marketing of such products.
The marketing strategy of most companies has not been the best.
“Most of us just want to make quick cash without considering the impact it could cause consumers,” Michel Nkenfack of ANAPROC said. To him “some companies go as far as to derail the consumers on the use of the products”.
Where companies place a user directive on the products, some greedy consumers still do not respect.
“Consumers too need to respect the user directives given on the product,” Prof. Brusil Miranda Metou, Secretary General at Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health explained during one of the sensitisation activities organized by ANAPROC in Yaounde.
“You will see a lady mixing two different products just to get white fast, and that is when it becomes even more dangerous,” she added.
The marketing strategy and the impact it has in the sector has led to the products been banned from consumption in some countries across the world.
South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, and other western countries have issued a ban on bleaching products in their respective countries.
“Placing a ban will not fix the situation,” says Amira Adawe, Executive Director of BeautyWell, a project aimed at discouraging skin lightening, whitening and bleaching.
Amira Adawe is also victim of skin lightening products.
“Skin lightening products cost black and brown communities, their money and health,” she insisted.
Just like Alvine and ANAPROC in Cameroon including the BeautyWell Project that focuses in Africa, many are African women who have taken the bull by the horns to discourage skin bleaching.
Another activist who was formerly a consumer of bleaching products, Nigerian born Benson, reported that in 2014, “i knew a young girl who died from a kidney disease that probably had been caused by the use of skin bleaching products”.
Moved by the story of the girl who died from skin bleaching – and realizing that it could have been her story too – Benson decided to become a dermatologist in 2016.
“I had experienced colorism growing up in Nigeria, and I understand the enticement for bleaching. I wanted to do something about it within and beyond the four walls of my clinic,” she said in a media interview.
In 2018, she launched the Embrace ‘Melanin Initiative’ which is based in Benin City, the capital of the southern Nigerian state of Edo.
The initiative trains young Africans who are dark-skinned to embrace their melanin and take a stand against colorism and skin bleaching.
Following reports, ‘Melanin Initiative’ has impacted over 10,000 people globally since 2018, through advocacy programs to raise awareness about the dangers of skin bleaching.
They launched another campaign known as “back-to-black campaign” that assists young people in overcoming their skin bleaching addiction and receiving dermatological and psychological care.
As a dermatologists, Benson, do not stop at anything to offer dermatological services for patients who are suffering from the adverse effects of skin bleaching agents.
The concept “Embrace Melanin” has formed strategic partnerships with youth groups, innovators, and stakeholders for more community-based outreach.
“A lot of people have told me that I am fighting a lost battle in trying to pitch my tent against the billion-dollar cosmetic industry that has made these bleaching products so popular,” Benson noted.
She had however refused to let go.
“The social media influencers who have given a platform to suspicious, organic skin lightening products are also on the other side of the divide,” Benson said.
The dermatologist-activist, Benson, dreams to set up a bleaching rehabilitation center in the future, with multidisciplinary holistic care where darker skinned individuals from all races who have lightened their skin can undergo counseling, get psychological support to deal with their trauma.