By: Omiko Awa
Before now, skin bleaching and toning used to be a fashion trait of the elites, especially for those who have stayed overseas for a while. With time, the fashion trend became a fad for people of varied and diverse social status, and local and foreign companies began to compete to produce various skin care products and soaps with enticing fragrance and colours to sustain the fad.
While the trend blossomed, locally made mixtures, pastes and soaps also thrived, giving those caught in the skin bleaching web a variety of products to choose from.
Aside from these products, some people self-mix variety of chemicals, including combinations of multiple commercial skin-bleaching products with hydrogen peroxide to produce their own homemade products.
Some people bleach or whiten their skin for reasons such as wanting to have a beautiful and alluring face, and wanting to remove ugly body marks, among others, which some experts say could be psychological. Some of those caught in the psychological pull, who are parents, have even extended the obsession to their children, including toddlers.
For Moreen Olisama, a Lagos-based skincare specialist, however, if done professionally, skin bleaching or toning helps to treat uneven skin tones for both men and women and involves the use of products like toners, washers, serums, and lotions. According to her, this cleanses the skin by removing any excess oil or dirt and maintains the skin’s potential hydrogen (ph) balance, while shrinking the pores.
Olisama revealed that skin toning or bleaching does not come instantaneously, but through a gradual and steady process, adding that it is always proper for the patients involved to be under the watchful eyes of a dermatologist or beauty care experts, as these people will not only direct and guide the patient, but will also help make the toning even on all parts of the body, including the genital areas.9
She noted that taking to self-help by using different toning creams and even soap and paste could be dangerous, as such people will only end up touching areas their hands could reach and leaving some parts of their bodies such as the back, the ear lobes, legs and others.
Disclosing that experts will also guide the person bleaching his/her skin on when to stop it and how to maintain it when things begin to go in the opposite direction, the beautician noted skin bleaching or toning needs to be regularly maintained to give one the optimal result.
One other disturbing trend is the toning of toddlers. Dr. Joseph Idoko, a dermatologist with Ada Clinic, Gboko, Benue State, described it as a result of high level ignorance.
He said such practice could lead to the damage or malfunction of important internal organs of such a child and advised parents to desist from it before they begin to create problems they cannot handle and also for the wellbeing of their child/children.
He noted that the child’s skin colour is a function of genetics, meaning that it is determined by the skin colour of either or both parents or grandparents, adding that toning or bleaching the natural skin would amount to damaging what nature has given to the child.
“A child’s skin colour is a product of what comes from the parent or either his/her grandparents. It is the function of one’s genes and should not be tampered with. For instance, if both parents have fair complexion, the child could be fair and if both are dark-skinned, the child could also be dark-skinned, unless where his/her grannies have opposite skin colour and the child, through either of the parent gene, may have such. It is totally a function of the genes and it should be allowed to manifest.”
According to the dermatologist, children’s skins keep on changing as they grow and most times become tan or darker as they are exposed to sun or heat, stressing that parents would be endangering the lives of their children by mixing creams that contain mercury or steroid to bleach or whiten their dark skin.
He added that children’s skins are much more tender than those of adults and could absorb more of the dangerous substances rubbed on it into their blood system, saying most of the substances are harmful to the children.
Idoko disclosed that bleaching children’s skin could lead to a long-term complication that could hinder such children from having normal growth because of the mercury and steroids contained in their cream, which may be absorbed into the body through the skin.
In most cases, such absorption causes internal organ damage and dysfunction of the brain and kidney or other hormonal disruptions. “If you want your child to look good and fresh, give him or her good food, balanced diet and fruits. Besides, no skin colour is bad, as far as you eat well, your skin will glow; it will sheen and make the beholder look nice,” he said.
Explaining some of the dangers inherent in bleaching, Dr. Ronke Ajuwon, a dermatologist with a private hospital in Lagos, said bleaching is peculiar to black people who want to look like the whites. She added that virtually all bleaching or toning cream contain steroids, hydroquinone and mercury (Hg), which are associated with a variety of health challenges such as mercury poisoning and exogenous hydroquinone ochronosis — an uncommon clinical appearance of blue-black or gray-blue pigmentation — that indicate yellow-brown pigmentation on skin.
She disclosed that other health effects range from dermatitis to steroid acne, and nephrotic syndrome, which are linked to ingredients such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury.
According to Dr. Ajuwon, there was a time in Nigeria that the federal government placed a total ban on all categories of bleaching and toning creams and soap because of their harmful effects on the end users, including children, but today those products flood our markets and some beauty outfits openly use them on their clients who want to whiten their skins.
She observed that it might not be too wrong to link the rise in skin cancer, kidney and liver dysfunction commonly experience these days to skin bleaching and toning, adding that when an individual bleaches or tones the skin, he/she will be susceptible to skin cancer as a result of the alterations of melanin production in the body,
She said: “For those of us living in tropical regions with strong ultraviolet heat from the sun, it would be improper to bleach or tone our skins because the dark skin, which is the melanin, we are taking away during bleaching, is meant to protect us from the sun-heat and sun-induced skin cancer. Bleaching our dark skin then means exposing oneself to the rays and its negative effects.”
Throwing light on the sicknesses that may befall persons that are engaged in the skin bleaching or toning, the Chief Medical Officer of So-Fine Clinic Dr. Joseph Omo-Emevor, said a good number of them are the blockage of their skin pores, body odour, skin inflammation or swellings (rashes), pimples due to steroidal chemicals used for the production of the various creams and soap used on the body and kidney problems because the millions of vessels for blood circulation and filtration for the kidneys would be affected and finally cancer.
The So-fine hospital boss noted that bleaching is a social problem that the advanced countries are taking advantage of to rip many people of their money, adding that in Africa the habit is imbibed both for social and economic reasons.
Highlighting some of the factors behind the fashion trend, Dr. Omo-Emevor said it is a vogue some black people cherish because they want to be like the whites, while stressing that the depleting economy of many black countries across the African continent is equally making the people to migrate to the west for succour.
He noted that in doing this, they bleach or tone their skin colour to look like the whites, try to speak like them, and bear their names, all in the name of being accepted to live in any of the European countries. He added that any form of skin bleaching or toning not done on health grounds amounts to a sign of inferiority complex because no amount of skin bleaching or toning can turn a black man to a white man.
He said: “It is a complex matter because skin bleaching is temporary; it is cosmetic and detrimental to human health. And any parent that has condescended so low to the extent of bleaching the skin of their toddler is not only preparing future health hazards for the child, but do not want to see their children grow old.
“It is a maddening situation and parents should not allow marketers or these merchants of death to sell poison to them in the name of baby lotion or creams, while indirectly they are toning creams. Consult your doctor, dermatologist or any other healthcare specialist on this.”
Seeing it as a social problem, Omo-Emevor revealed that skin bleaching or toning or skin whitening is carried out more by black women than black men, saying this is so, because most black women that bleach associate beauty to skin bleaching or toning.
He said: “Some Nigerians and black women across Africa ignorantly believe that having fair-complexioned skin means being beautiful and they will go ahead to bleach or tone their natural dark skin, that is removing the melanin, and thereby exposing themselves to various health challenges.”
Mentioning some of the ways to curtail the social problem, the medical practitioner called on the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, (NAFDAC), to be up and doing by making sure that all those harmful soaps, toning creams among others are taken off our markets, as such items help to gradually kill our people.
Although, he noted that the whites will skin bleach or tone if they find themselves in the negative economic situation black people have found themselves today, he, however, stressed that the federal government should protect its people by creating strict legislation that would discourage the importation and sales of these bleaching products in the country.
He also called the various health agencies to sensitize the people on the various harms skin bleaching and toning can do to people of all ages.
For Wosu O. Emmanuel of Borix Data and Research Services, Lagos, there is a slight difference between skin toning and skin bleaching.
According to the healthcare giver, skin toning aims at improving the overall complexion and texture of the skin by helping to balance the skin’s pH levels, remove residual dirt or makeup, and prepare the skin for other skincare products to be put on it, while in skin bleaching or skin lightening or whitening, the patient engages body care products or treatments to lighten the skin colour. This means skin bleaching or whitening, when moderately and properly used, could reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, dark spots or melasma (dark spots) on human body.
He disclosed that it is advisable to use skin toning cream to remove natural, accident marks, or ugly birth marks on the body than to skin bleach. “When doing this, the person must always consult a skin care specialist or a dermatologist because of the side effects that might arise later,” he said.
Frowning at child’s skin bleaching or toning, Emmanuel noted that it is inimical to the child’s health and could impede growth.
Highlighting motives that is encouraging the habit, irrespective of past effort to stop it, Jamiu Adewale, a sociologist-turned-actor, disclosed that the trend would live with us for long.
According to him, social media, advertising, movies and celebrities promote the falsehood that fair skin complexioned people are more beautiful than the dark-skinned persons, adding that some filmmakers would only accept a fair-skinned complexioned people as their cast. They believe that such people would appear better in the camera with less light shone on them than a black-skinned person. Adewale noted that the filmmakers, in a way, are saying that if you want a quick role in the movies, bleach or tone your skin.
“Take a close look at Nollywood movies and even TV Soaps, you will see that majority of the cast are fair complexioned. Unpronounced and unethical criteria like these, will make people who want to go into acting as a profession to begin to consider skin toning or bleaching as one of their features even when they are dark-skinned.
“It also becomes worse when our local celebrities — men and women alike — who are supposed to be role models are also bleaching their skins and flaunting their looks as if nothing has happened; some have even gone to the extent of announcing who did the bleaching or toning for them and where they take care of their bodies,” he said.
Condemning the practice, a psychologist and Director General of Centre for Research, Information and Media Development, Lagos, Dr. Raphael James, said anybody not using skin bleaching or toning for curative purposes must be suffering from low self-esteem, adding that such attitude is usually carried out by people who do not feel that they are fit enough to compete with others in whatsoever field they find themselves.
According to him, such people bleach with the wrong motives that if they have light skin, they will be easily accepted by all.
He noted that once the black skin is bleached or toned, in most cases, the person involved do come out looking ugly with different colour patches in some parts of the body.
He disclosed that such people sometimes suffer anxiety and depression in their quest to be whom they are not and the inferiority complex they are trying to escape from do become more pronounced in them.
Disclosing that some men bleach just like their women counterpart, and even encourage their children to do so, the psychologist revealed such men might be struggling with self-hatred of having the feelings of not being “good enough.” He noted that such attitudes could result to engaging in risky behaviours, including substance abuse and having challenges in forming intimate relationships with people due to the feelings of inadequacy.
James also said that families of people that bleach their skin normally suffer some psychological effect for the actions of their loved one because of the negative body image the particular family member has created.
“Some of the dangers most people involved in skin bleaching face are prejudice, discrimination, and neglect, especially when their actions are beginning to result in some health challenges. It becomes obvious that when they begin to have issues like cancer, there family members will not be able to raise the needed fund for treatment; so, they are usually abandoned to their fate. In this case, it will be better we avoid such dangerous lifestyles to enjoy good health,” he said.