Fade to White

Skin Bleaching and the Rejection of Blackness

The creams are packaged in toothpaste-like tubes and can be bought from the local market where cosmetics are sold. A tube can cost 15,000 cidis, which is a little over $2. This may not seem as though it would put a dent in anyone's purse, but when the average Ghanaian makes $200 a year, preserving light skin can be expensive. "You need a bit more than 10 [tubes] to get it light,"Adwoa explains, pointing to her dark arm, then mine. "They think if you do that you are rich."

Nevertheless, achieving that high white glow seems virtually impossible for many. "I started bleaching two years ago but stopped because I started developing very bad stretch marks," Diana Gyaamfua, 28, attests. In addition to stretch marks, skin bleachers usually take on the appearance of being sunburned—their faces turn brick red and puffy, with black splotches.

"The commonest complication of bleaching that we see is post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation of the skin, especially at the areas around the eyes," says dermatologist Prosper Doe, of the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. In lay terms, you start off looking for lighter, smoother skin, but end up darker and blotchy.

"If people look redder or have a stranger color, which in their eyes looks lighter than ours, they feel happier," the tour guide Alloeei-Cofie explains. African newspapers report that the trend among local women is growing. Any and all who can afford it do it: from the wives of public officials to the street vendors, the middle class to the poor. For those who fade, money is irrelevant. At the same time, this is a practice many Africans fear will cost more than money. "I can't go out in the sun because the sun is too hot," Animahh says.

For Abdullahi Gwarmai, the price was much bigger. He was fired from his job as speaker of the house of assembly in a northern Nigerian state. The practice is forbidden under Islamic law. But Gwarmai wasn't buying that explanation. "I have bleached my skin since childhood, and everyone knows this," he told the Inter Press Service. "My removal has political undertones. The issue of bleaching is not a good reason for my removal."

This is a Warning

The dangers go beyond cultural and political problems. "There is suspicion of an increased risk of renal failure as a result of the mercury contained in some of the products that people use for bleaching," says Dr. Doe.

Since many bleachers don't seek help until it's too late, doctors are hoping public service announcements will open people's eyes. Maama Adwoa says she's heard the "stop bleaching" advertisements on radio and seen them on the television. "They say we should stop bleaching because of skin cancer and skin disease. But people don't want to listen because they don't know," she says, shaking her head.

They end up like Animahh, with such bad skin disease that they can't safely go out in the sun. Because there are so many bleachers experiencing negative side effects, a new wave of women are stopping. Even worse, others are using additional creams from local markets to try and turn their skin back to its original complexion. With consumers who are uninformed and all too trusting of beauty products, various West African countries continue to stand against the practice.

In the Gambia, for instance, the government officials have not only banned all skin-bleaching products—Bu-Tone, Madonna Cream, Glo-Tone, and the American-made Ambi—but left open the option of arresting those found with bleached skin. Officials in Europe have also been paying attention, with the government of Denmark banning skin-bleaching creams and soaps. Officials there have gone to several of the African shops and confiscated these products. Tura, a product the Danes have prohibited, remains widely used and popular in Ghana and among other African people.

These tactics may seem extreme, but doctors say they're not without reason."Some of these products were banned sometime in the past, but somehow, some of them still find their way onto the local markets where most of these bleachers get their products," Dr. Doe explains. "There, you don't need a prescription to buy anything."

In addition to the actions the Gambia has taken, a significant amount of West African government officials agree that hydroquinone should be outlawed. They want bleaching products tested and labeled "guaranteed without hydroquinone."

Yet Lustra, a popular product used by many, contains 4 percent hydroquinone. Its warning label reads: "If you should experience any type of irritation, redness, or a rash while you are using Lustra, discontinue using it and contact your dermatologist."

Bleaching for more than two years, doctors say, inevitably causes damage. In Ghana, it's not unusual for people to bleach much longer than that. Selina Margaret Oppong started bleaching five years ago with a locally manufactured soap. "I have no complications and do not worry about any," she says.

Maybe she should. Doctors are now seeing cases in which they cannot apply stitches to the skin because it has weakened to the point where it falls apart. "We do have surgical complications such as difficulty in suturing the skin and poor healing of surgical wounds," says Dr. Peter Preko, a Ghanaian doctor.

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