Our International Editor, SYLVIA ARTHUR reports from Ghana on the dangerous skin-bleaching craze that’s become a way of life
They call it “Fanta Face, Coca-Cola Body,” referring to the light-skinned faces and dark-skinned bodies of men and women who routinely strip away the melanin from their skins in order to be white. It’s the symptom that most betray a skin-bleaching indulgence. While some bleachers are fair-skinned on their face—the most visible part of their body—the rest of their physique remains as dark as God intended, either because they don’t bother to lighten the parts that others won’t see or they simply don’t care to. Some have rough black-and-blue scars left by the harsh products they use and reek of a nauseating smell. Many engage in lengthy daily rituals to ensure that they achieve what they consider to be a perfect shade of black. Others take even more drastic action. They seem unaware or unafraid of the dangers associated with the sustained use of this practice.
In 2001, when it was confirmed that two women who died from cancer had acquired the disease as a direct result of sustained skin bleaching, the authorities knew that the time had come to do something about the practice that has reached epidemic proportions.
At the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in the capital Accra, doctors proved what had been feared for a long time; skin bleaching causes skin cancer. Over a number of years, continuous stripping away of the melanin in the skin leaves it more open to cancer. Whereas traditionally black people haven’t been vulnerable to skin cancer, Albinos, whose lack of melanin is responsible for their pale colouring, have. When the melanin is removed, naturally black skin becomes similar to that of an Albino and is, therefore, more susceptible to disease.
“The most serious thing, which I predicted over 30 years ago, is that bleaching can cause death,” states Dr. Edmund Delle, a dermatologist and founder of Rabito Skin Clinics in Ghana. “I was the first dermatologist in the world to associate the two and now, after all these years, we’ve discovered cases of cancer due to bleaching. We know that melanin has protective roles in the skin, and we’ve realized that because of this protection, black people hardly get skin cancer.”
Bleaching in some parts of Africa is nothing less than a way of life. Women are known to have strict regimes where they take anything up to half an hour in the morning and evening smearing themselves with powerful soaps and creams in an effort to attain their ideal of black beauty.
And it’s a lucrative business. Africa has become the dumping ground for the world’s banned products, mostly goods that were prohibited in Europe years ago but are still manufactured for export to Africa. Some companies manufacturing exclusively for the African continent produce creams with dangerously high levels of the bleaching agent Hydroquinone. It’s doubtful that the regulation 2 percent Hydroquinone limit is 100 percent safe.
“It’s not safe. I’m against it,” asserts Dr. Delle, who’s also a senior member of the Africa Association of Dermatology. “There’s been a lot of disagreement but, in my opinion, what matters is the length of time of exposure to the sun, so it doesn’t matter how tiny the percentage is.”
In the past, the tendency to bleach was known primarily as the preserve of prostitutes and women who worked in the local sex industry. It’s thought to have originated in the 1960s, when a number of products first became widely available.
Nowadays, however, all kinds of people, including men and children, are engaging in the practice, which can prove both costly and time-consuming. Professionals–teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses and even politicians–are all at it.” I went to an African country where the Head of State bleaches from head to toe, and the wife does the same thing. I was going to give a lecture on bleaching and was told that I had to change the topic,” recalls Dr. Delle.
What’s more disturbing is the fact that people living in rural communities, struggling to exist below the poverty line, are also bleaching in earnest and are initiating dangerous techniques to participate in the trend. Unable to afford sophisticated creams and soaps, they create their own home-made preparations, mixing everything from toothpaste, shampoo and milk to household bleach, cement and brake fluid. In short, anything that has a corrosive effect on the skin. Some women have even developed a new procedure involving the smearing of hair relaxer all over the body and wearing up to three layers of clothing, including socks, gloves and long-sleeved tops, to protect themselves from the sun’s penetrating darkening rays.
The reason for this potentially life-endangering practice is purely vanity. Women who bleach do so because they believe that men prefer their lighter-skinned counterparts. Also, in some African societies light-skinned people are perceived to be more intelligent than those with a darker hue.
Dr. Delle says that he’s had women come to his clinic in Accra from all over the country offering him large sums of money to turn their naturally black skin brown. He admits that he’s had patients come to him faking an illness just so that they could be given steroid creams or injections that have the side-effects of lightening the skin.
“They genuinely come to you for a disease. They accidentally see that they’re getting fairer, and then the message goes around, and everybody does it. And some of these things I’ve discover by accident,” Delle insists. “If I give them an injection or creams, in a week or two they find they’re looking fair then they come back for it every time. They inject themselves and take penicillin tablets . . . anything.”
Tom Dorkenoo, editor of The Ghanaian Times newspaper, claims that those who work at beauticians and have discovered a formula for bleaching products are responsible for the rise in unsophisticated domestic manufacture. He says the reason why many people aren’t deterred from bleaching is because they mistakenly think the advantages—light skin—outweigh the disadvantages.
But the health implications are numerous. Kidney disorders, potential miscarriages and increased susceptibility to common skin diseases and allergies are among the many consequences. Tough, rough, scarred skin, the most serious side-effect, makes it difficult for operations to be performed should surgery be required, since the skin is too thin and too damaged to be stitched up once cut.
Dorkenoo began his campaigning journalism against the practice when a friend of his, who had been bleaching, died from this very condition. “The shock made me follow up this thing. And I keep on doing it. Every year I write about three editorials on skin bleaching.”
However, not everyone appreciates the outing of this phenomenon. Dorkenoo says he’s received little thanks, especially from those who are guilty of engaging in it. He says he’s suffered both physical and verbal abuse as a result of his work. “It’s not a very comfortable thing. A woman spat on me because she bleached, and I told people about this. So it’s not easy because a lot of people are doing it.”
Dorkenoo blames Ghana’s older generation for being negative role models for the country’s youth. “If a child goes to hospital and sees a nurse sitting before a doctor with bleached skin that tells the child that it’s healthy to do it. If a child goes in to the classroom and sees the teacher doing it that too tells the child that it’s healthy to do it.”
The consensus is that the only way to counter the disturbing trend is to wage a multi-agency campaign warning people of the dangers of bleaching. But as long as images of Western beauty continue to flood African markets and berate the natural black aesthetic, the problem will persist and claim even more lives than ever before.