There is a trend among Nigerian women that I have lamented in passing in but never spent much time thinking about—skin bleaching. Teenage boys hawk skin lightening creams to passing cars on the freeways, and such creams are available in every beauty salon or beauty supply store I have entered. I had always thought of such beauty practices as being most common in India, however the World Health Organized (WHO) published that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo, and 27% in Senegal. Last week, The Economist ran this fascinating story:
“Skin-lightening products are so popular in Nigeria they have given rise to their own terminology in Pidgin English. “Some people have a Fanta face from using bleaching products,” explains Esther, a shop attendant showing Baobab around the skin-lightening products that take up two aisles of the small cosmetic section in a minimarket in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. ‘Fanta face, coca cola legs’ she explains, describes the mottled complexion of someone who uses skin-lightening products on their face but not their body, which maintains its darker shade.
‘I don’t use them, I prefer to be chocolate,’ says Esther, ‘but some people use them so other people don’t think they work outside all day.’ Fairer skin is equated with wealth and working in plush air-conditioned offices, not toiling in fields and open-air markets under the blazing hot sun.
Nothing new there—Queen Elizabeth I of England famously used lead as a skin whitener. It became an increasingly popular practice among African women in the late 1950s. And it is a lucrative business. The industry is set to be worth $10bn globally by 2015, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts. In Nigeria, skin lightening can cost anything from a few dollars for a cream or soap to hundreds of dollars for a treatment in a beauty parlour, and the increasing westernisation of young Nigerian women has bolstered the demand for more expensive products.
But the trend comes with hazardous health consequences. Many products contain mercury and hydroquinone, which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discolouration and scarring. Excessive use may even cause psychological problems, according to the WHO report. Worryingly, some women in Nigeria actively seek out products that contain these harmful ingredients, as they are perceived to be more effective. But often those that do contain harmful substances, do not list them as ingredients.
In India, where nearly two-thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin-lightening products, a whitening wash for intimate female areas was launched this year. It provoked international outrage when a television advert implied that women who used it would be more attractive to men. When Baobab asked some Nigerian women whether they would try such a product, they replied with raucous laughter.
For some, the teasing these products can induce just is not worth it. “When people have this patchy face we call them bingo face,” explains Julie Ogidi, a cook, ‘Bingo—like the dog.'”