Skin Bleaching Business Booming in Africa Despite Potentially Harmful Effects

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According to reports, the market for bleaching products to produce a lighter skin color among Nigerian women is booming. But the beauty trend involving harsh chemicals comes with health consequences.

According to a report from the World Health Organization released last year, women in Nigeria topped the list of countries using skin lightening products with 77 percent of the female population applying them regularly.

The Economist reported in September that in the country’s capital of Abuja a store’s cosmetics’ section had two aisles devoted to skin-bleaching products exclusively and that they are expected to be a $10 billion industry worldwide by 2015.

Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow has a more recent video report including interviews with women talking about why they want lighter skin. Reasons include looking more beautiful and having the perception of being more successful:

One shop owner in Al Jazeera’s report explained that skin lightening is a gradual process.

“It’s not something you wake up one day and decide ‘I want to be fair, I want to be like Michael Jackson,’ and you go Michael Jackson all of a sudden,” the shop owner said.

It’s so popular in Nigeria, the Economist reported, that there’s even local lingo for people who only use products on their face, while the rest of their body stays darker. They’re called “Fanta face, coca cola legs.” Al Jazeera’s report stated that the very nature of calling it bleaching has been rebranded as “toning” now as well.

The WHO report though noted the active ingredient in these products — mercury salts to inhibit melanin formation — can cause kidney damage and reduce the body’s natural ability to fight of bacterial and fungal infections. What’s more, mercury in such heavily used products eventually ends up in water supplies as well, making its way into fish, which if eaten by pregnant women can cause birth defects.

BBC earlier this year covered the story of a female entrepreneur who was “alarmed” by the skin bleaching she saw going on in Africa. Grace Amey-Obeng of Ghana started a beauty clinic and product line to combat the problem with only $100 in seed funding and it is now worth millions.

“The women in the market had destroyed their skin with all this kind of beauty products, bleaching products, and so I saw the need for assisting them to reverse the process because otherwise it would become a social problem,” she said, according to BBC.

Here’s more on Amey-Obeng’s story: