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Friday, September 6, 2013

Dying for White Skin: Skin-lightening Creams and Soaps in Africa

Skin-lightening creams and soaps are popular in Africa despite mercury poisoning health risks.


The World Health Organization has reported that Nigerians are the highest users of skin-lightening products: 77% of Nigerian women use the products on a regular basis. They are followed by Togo 59%, South Africa 35%, Senegal 27%, and Mali 25% women reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis. Studies have found that men are also beginning to bleach their skin. Some creams contain harmful steroids and others mercury.

Mercury is a common ingredient found in skin lightening soaps and creams. Mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. Skin lightening soaps and creams are commonly used in certain African among dark-skinned populations.  Skin lightening products come in different forms, including soaps and creams; the soap is often sold as antiseptic soap. These products are supposed to be applied to the skin to dry overnight. It is reported that some women use skin-lightening products for as long as 20 years. The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage. Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring.

A 2013 story by the BBC on Congolese hair stylist Jackson Marcelle says “He has been using special injections to bleach his skin for the past 10 years.” Each injection lasts for six months. Marcelle - known in this busy community as Africa's Michael Jackson - says his mother used to apply creams on him when he was young in order to make him appear "less black".

The World Health Organization has reported that Nigerians are the highest users of skin-lightening products"I like white people. Black people are seen as dangerous; that's why I don't like being black. People treat me better now because I look like I'm white," he adds.

"I pray every day and I ask God, 'God why did you make me black?' I don't like being black. I don't like black skin," Jackson Marcelle says .

Psychologists say there are also underlying reasons why people bleach their skin - but low self-esteem and, to some degree self-hate, are a common thread.  Entrenched in the minds of many Africans from a young age is the adage "if it's white, it's all right", a belief that has chipped away at the self-esteem of millions. Until this changes, no amount of official bans or public information campaigns will stop people risking serious damage to their health in the pursuit of what they think is beauty.

Mercury-containing skin lightening products are hazardous to health and as a result have been officially banned in many countries throughout Africa. However, mercury-containing skin lightening products are still widely available on the Internet. Also, these products are sometimes illegally smuggled into Africa and sold at local markets in towns and villages.  These soaps and creams may contain about 1-10% of mercury, and just 1% mercury levels pose a serious health hazard.


The amount or concentration of mercury in a product may be labelled on the packaging or in the ingredient list. However, companies selling products that contain mercury, do not always list it as an ingredient. Names to look for include:
·        Mercury
·        Hg
·        Mercuric Iodide
·        Mercurous Chloride
·        Ammoniated Mercury
·        Amide Chloride Of Mercury
·        Quicksilver
·        Cinnabaris
·        Mercury Sulfide
·        Hydrargyri Oxydum Rubrum
·        Mercury Oxide
·        Mercury Iodide  
·        May Say “Poison”; Directions to avoid contact with silver, gold, rubber, and aluminum 

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