Skin lightening: Use of dangerous and banned chemicals persists despite warnings

Yellow bone is defined by the Urban Dictionary as a light-skinned black female.

TEN YEARS: Khanyi Mbau, left in 2006 and right in 2016. Mbau admits to undergoing ‘non-invasive’ skin lightening processes

According to this website – a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang – the condition was a rarity in the black population, but thanks to skin lightening or skin bleaching, this is no longer the case.

Hundreds of moderate to dark-skinned black women are attempting to change their complexions with illegal creams, pills and soaps.

Another route is the intravenous glutathione drip, delivered with vitamins, minerals and fluids, which is believed to hydrate the skin and reduce melanin production. It is said to be used by a number of SA celebrities.

During an interview with Phat Joe on East Coast radio earlier this year‚ Khanyi Mbau admitted to using skin-lightening processes.

When Joe asked her why‚ she said it was a personal choice.

“There is something about a woman who looks brighter‚ but there is a difference between lightening and bleaching. Lightening is non-invasive. It also boosts your immune system and helps with anti-aging.”

In a 2016 study titled The Phenomenon of Skin Lightening: Is it Right to be Light? conducted in association with the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Pennsylvania State University in the US, researchers revealed that chemicals capable of lightening the skin, known variously as skin-bleaching, skin-lightening, depigmenting, skin-evening and skin-brightening agents, are among the most commonly used skin preparations in the world.

According to the study Africa has a high prevalence of skin lightener use, with 60% of urban African women using skin lighter formulations from as far back as the late 1960s. The highest usage was in Nigeria, with 72.4% of women. South Africa came last with 32.6%.

“Although skin lighteners have been used for centuries, only in the last century has production of these materials become commercialised and global,” the study reads.

“Currently, Africa has the highest number of studies reporting on the global prevalence of skin lightener use. Despite toxic systemic effects, application of topical skin lighteners remains popular throughout the African continent. The market for commercial skin lighteners has grown in the Caribbean, Asia and the Far East.”

But just how do these products work? East London-based dermatologist Dr Rupesh Misra said the active ingredient was hydroquinone, which prevents melanin production.

While the result could be skin which looks lighter, Misra warned that overuse could lead to a form of dermatitis called exogenous ochronosis, which causes the skin to look grey. “I’ve had patients requesting skin lightening but I don’t do it.

“They usually end up going to buy the creams from somewhere else. The products are so easily available people can even get them at a hair salon,” Misra said. “My issue is that there has not been enough research and I warn people about that but some go ahead anyway.”

In another study, conducted by the British Journal of Dermatology in 2015 titled Skin Lightening Practices: An Epidemiological Study of South African Women of African and Indian Ancestries, 600 African and Indian women from two regional university hospitals were asked to complete a questionnaire.

Of the respondents, 32.7% reported using skin lightening products. The main reasons cited were treatment of skin problems (66.7%) and skin lightening (33.3%). “Products were purchased from a variety of sources, despite more than 20 years of governmental regulations aimed at prohibiting both the sale of cosmetics containing mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids and the advertising of any kind of skin lightener, they are far from having disappeared,” the study said.

East London dermatologist Dr Louis Bok warned that research was limited on both the effectiveness of the products and their long-term effects on the skin.

He said: “These products are not only dangerous but they don’t always work. Yes, one can look lighter after applying the creams but the end result may be that the skin will start to look darker in the long run. There is very little evidence of these products making people lighter and keeping them that way forever.

“I see it as a waste of money.”

Yet businesses plugging into the skin-lightening market appear to be thriving. While an internet search revealed that no clinic offering skin lightening is available in the Border area, the Daily Dispatch conducted a wider search, coming across two clinics purporting to offer almost immediate results.

Called the Woman’s Clinic, a Pretoria-based outfit sells creams, pills and soap which it says can all be applied simultaneously to lighten skin. A receptionist answering a call we placed to the clinic said results could be seen within two weeks.

The Johannesburg-based Yellowbone Factory promises safe, high quality and effective product solutions to everyone who wishes to have a lighter complexion. It sells a Neo-Ultra range which purportedly contains no hydroquinone, cortisone, lead, mercury or steroids.

Products are sold after a consultation which sets the consumer back R1600. A call to one of the numbers listed on the website was answered by a woman who refused to identify herself, requesting the Daily Dispatch to send an e-mail with questions. No reply had been provided at the time of writing.

What drives the use of these products? According to the UCT-Pennsylvania study, the chief reasons remain varied but are strongly linked to historical racism.

“The motivation driving the practice is often the desire to lighten one’s skin because of a perceived notion of increased privileges, higher social standing, better employment and increased marital prospects associated with lighter skin,” the authors suggest.

“This perception, coupled with influential marketing strategies from transnational cosmetic houses using iconic celebrities, increases the allure for women primarily, but also, increasingly men.

“Unfortunately, the main fear is that the presence of legally available products could potentially cloud the distinction of the consumer between products that are tested and those that are damaging and illegal.”

Misra was of the same opinion.

“The problem with skin lightening is that people see it as a way of increasing their social standing. And with so many celebrities doing it, the popularity is increasing,” he said, adding that darker skin actually provided better natural protection against the effects of the sun.

“The darker the skin, the better the protection against the damaging effects of the South African sun. So it doesn’t make sense to lighten it.

“Lighter skin is also more prone to aging and wrinkles.”

According to Bok, whether using skin lightener or not, sun screen should be used daily.

“I always advise all my patients to use sun protection every day,” he said. —


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