In November 1997, a 58-year old retired female clerical worker presented to the Dermatology Outpatient Clinic of Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana “with complaints of dark patches on light-exposed areas of the face, arms, neck, hands, legs and feet of about 10 years duration” as well as a large fungating ulcer on the right side of her neck. Despite a continuous regime of treatment spanning the course of 14 months, her condition failed to improve. In February 1999, the patient died. The cause of death — sun-related squamous cell carcinoma with pulmonary metastasis precipitated by the habitual application of hydroquinone and later steroid-containing creams. Translated – this Ghanaian woman’s death was caused by a type of skin cancer, which later spread to her lungs, and was attributed to her ritual practice of skin bleaching for more than 20 years of her adult life.
In May 2001, Ghanaian boxing fans watched as veteran boxer Percy Oblitei Commey’s skin literally fell apart. The Ghana Review International reported that early in the fourth round, his opponent, Smith Odoom, delivered a series of punches to Commey’s face, opening a deep cut on his right cheek. As the fight progressed, Commey suffered similar cuts in both nostrils and his right ear, causing him to bleed profusely. By the seventh round, Commey’s cornermen and ringside doctors attempted to give the boxer medical attention but found that they could not suture the wounds – his skin was disastrously thin. Not only did Commey lose his national super-featherweight belt, but his “dark” secret had been exposed: Commey had habitually bleached his skin. Twice a day, he followed a regimen that included steroid soap, a lightening shampoo, and two hydroquinone creams. The once popular 6’4” boxer was booed by fans and subsequently became the object of media ridicule, reportedly because of his “feminine look.” Commey would enter the ring only once more, three years later.
While the death of the retired female clerical worker and the imagery conjured by the mention of Commey’s injuries are indeed disturbing to say the least, theirs are not isolated incidents. According to a 2005 Ghana Health Service report, approximately 30% of Ghanaian women and 5% of Ghanaian men are “currently actively bleaching.”
The incidence of skin bleaching – the intentional alteration of one’s natural skin color to one relatively, if not substantially, lighter in color, through the use of chemical skin lightening agents, either manufactured, homemade, or any combination of the two – has been well documented in Africa. In some parts of the continent, bleaching is nothing less than a way of life. An estimated:
- Seventy five percent of traders in Lagos, Nigeria (2002)
- 52% of the population in Dakar, Senegal, 35% in Pretoria, South Africa (2004)
- 50% of the female population in Bamako, Mali (2000)
- 8 out of 10 seemingly light-skinned women in Cote d’Ivoire (1998)
- 60% of Zambian women ages 30 – 39 (2005)
- 50 -60% of adult Ghanaian women
Though my research focuses on skin bleaching in Africa, the practice is not specific to Africa or people of African descent for that matter. In fact, wherever we find people of color, so too do we find the practice of skin bleaching. And throughout the world, the practice disproportionately affects female populations.
In parts of South Asia, where many parents advise their children to avoid sunlight because flawlessly milky white skin is coveted, cosmetic whiteners are indispensable in everyday skincare. According to a 2003 report, 38% of women in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines use whitening products, and 43% of the women surveyed “believed a fair complexion would make them more attractive to men.” Asian women reportedly spend exorbitant amounts of money to buy high-end bleaching products such as those manufactured by L’oreal, the largest cosmetics company in the world, and the leading European manufacturer of skin whitening products.
Similarly, in India, where “60 percent of all beauty products sold are skin lightening agents,” skin tone impacts both marriage marketability and the ability to gain white-collar employment. All-purpose skin bleaching products are marketed frequently and aggressively…
…but so are products geared for specific areas, like the underarms…
…and more ‘intimate’ areas…
What’s interesting about India is that it is one of the few places where men’s bleaching does not hold the same stigma as it does elsewhere in the world. In many other places, men who bleach are regarded effeminate for taking part in something that is regarded a woman’s practice. But in India, skin bleaching is practiced openly by both men and women. To preserve their masculinity, however, Indian men are expected to use their own products, and not those made for women; at least that’s way that Fair and Handsome, is India’s #1 whitening cream designed specifically for men, spins it. In addition to print advertisements, it broadcasts a number of television commercials not only in India, but in the UK as well.
Interestingly enough, in 2010, when Vaseline launched a skin whitening app for Facebook, specifically for India, it was the image of a man that was used. Using this application, Facebookers can manipulate their photos so that they can appear whiter than they actually are. According to Vaseline, the response has been “pretty phenomenal.”
Despite the global presence of regulatory boards comparable to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the skin lightening products marketed, sold, and used across the world are more chemically potent than those marketed, sold, and used here in the United States. In the U.S., hydroquinone, one of the active agents found in skin-bleaching creams, cannot be obtained in percentages above 2% without a prescription; and by prescription, the highest percentage legally available is 4%. The manufactured skin bleaches found in many parts of Africa contain potentially lethal doses of substances like hydroquinone (between 4% and 25%), corticosteroids, mercury iodide, and various additional caustic agents. When exposed to sunlight, a staple in most parts of Africa, these chemicals prove even more hazardous.
Contact with these agents can cause a wide array of opportunistic infections and skin disorders, including allergies, ulcers and ultimately skin cancer or leukemia in some cases…..people who bleach become so thin-skinned they’re unable to receive injections and other routine medical procedures including stitching following surgery or accidents. In extreme cases, mercury and metals are absorbed at such a level that brain and kidney damage occurs, sometimes resulting in death. Withdrawal from the corticosteroids can lead to shock, which can be fatal (emphasis mine, McKinley, 2001, 96).In the absence of manufactured products, many people use homemade admixtures. Some mix both manufactured and homemade products for a more potent brew. And yet despite the ravaging effects of both homemade and manufactured products, many people continue to bleach, some to the point of death. Governmental and medical authorities’ attempts to abolish skin bleaching by controlling the dosage and availability of manufactured bleaching agents fail to address people’s continued need to use the products. Even if legislative bans on bleaching agents were to be fully enforced, such efforts would only serve to minimize the incidence or more likely force it underground, not eradicate it. For in the minds of many, the privileges assigned to light skin, whether actual or assumed, are worth dying for.
Addo, H.A. (2000). Squamous Cell Carcinoma Associated with Prolonged Bleaching. Ghana Medical Journal, 34, 144-146.
Chisholm, N.J. (2002, January 22). Fade to White: Skin Bleaching and the Rejection of Blackness.
McKinley, C. (2001, May).Yellow Fever. Honey Magazine, 96-99.
Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction