By Violet Ikong
The sale and usage of skin bleaching cosmetics was banned by the Rwandan government in 2019. South Sudan implemented a similar prohibition in the same year. In South Africa, skin bleaching, also known as skin lightening or skin whitening, was banned in 1990, and in Ghana, it was banned in 2017.
Among Africans with a dark complexion, particularly women, skin bleaching is a prevalent practice. Even in countries where it is prohibited, the practice is widespread among Black women who believe that lighter skin tones are more attractive than darker ones, and that light skin brings privileges and opportunities unavailable to those with dark skin.
In 2011, the World Health Organization reported that 40% of African women bleached their skin. In Nigeria, 77% of women engaged in skin bleaching; in Togo, 59%; in South Africa, 35%; in Senegal, 27% and in Mali, 25%.
“Many people in Africa attribute being light-skinned to ‘pretty privileges’ and success,” said Anita Benson, a Nigerian dermatologist and founder of Embrace Melanin Initiative, a nonprofit that works to eradicate colorism and harmful skin practices in Africa.
As a child, Benson was abused by her classmates because of the color of her skin. They called her derogatory names like “shadow” and “golliwog” because her skin was “too dark.”
But like many other women, Benson refused to bleach her skin. This resistance can lead to discrimination and stigma. The darker the skin tone, the greater the level of attacks.
Because some men in Africa prefer women with lighter skin tones, many Black women resort to bleaching their skin to appear more attractive. When she was an internal medicine resident in 2014, Benson knew a young girl who died from a kidney disease that probably had been caused by the use of skin bleaching products. She learned that the young girl had started skin bleaching to impress a man who had chosen to date a woman with lighter skin over her.
Moved by the story of the girl who died from skin bleaching – and realizing that could have been her story, too – Benson decided to become a dermatologist in 2016.
“I had experienced colorism growing up in Nigeria, and I understand the enticement for bleaching. I wanted to do something about it beyond the four walls of my clinic,” she said.
So in 2018, she launched the Embrace Melanin Initiative. Based in Benin City, the capital of the southern Nigerian state of Edo, the organization trains young Africans who are dark-skinned to embrace their melanin and take a stand against colorism and skin bleaching.
The organization estimates that it has impacted over 10,000 people globally since 2018, through speaking engagements in the U.S., Nigeria, and South Africa; online and offline advocacy programs to raise awareness about the dangers of skin bleaching; their #backtoblack campaign that assists young people in overcoming their skin bleaching addiction and receiving dermatological and psychological care; and dermatological services for patients who are suffering from the adverse effects of skin bleaching agents. Embrace Melanin forms strategic partnerships with youth groups, innovators, and stakeholders for more community-based outreach.
“Some people go into skin bleaching not because they want to, but because they have a low level of self-esteem and want to be like others who are light-skinned so they could be loved and accepted. They end up hating themselves most times when they begin to see the harmful effects of the bleaching creams on their skin. That is why Embrace Melanin provides psychological support to such persons,” said Dominic Joshua, who volunteers for the organization.
Skin bleaching impacts all ages. Some mothers want their children to grow up with lighter skin tones, and have bleached the skin of babies as young as a year old. In 2018, the Daily Trust reported that pregnant Ghanaian women were turning to bleaching tablets in the hopes they would give birth to light-skinned babies. The women did not realize the potentially disastrous side effects to their unborn children. And many dark-skinned children grow up desiring lighter skin tones.
“I remember one time when a 9-year-old girl came to me and asked if I could sell her a skin bleaching cream. I asked her why she wanted to bleach her skin and she told me her classmates in school were always mocking her and telling her that her skin was too dark,” said Amarachi Onwuamaegbu, who is the founder of House of Maramuna, a Nigerian organization fighting skin bleaching among children and adults.
With no laws in Nigeria prohibiting the sale of skin bleaching creams, children can easily get them from local cosmetics shops. The creams are inexpensive, which makes it even easier. Some bleaching creams are sold for as low as N500 ($1.20 USD).
House of Maramuna was founded in 2018 and is located in southeast Nigeria, in Anambra State. To discourage the skin bleaching of children, Onwuamaegbu educates mothers on the health dangers associated with bleaching. Representatives of the organization also visit primary and secondary schools to educate children on issues relating to colorism and skin bleaching.
“Children are easier to teach, and if we can make them love and accept their dark skin as kids, they will grow up to be adults who will not indulge in skin bleaching,” Onwuamaegbu said.
Since its inception in 2018, the organization has visited more than 20 schools around the state, directly impacting over 3,000 students. During the visits, the children are taught how to make body oils from local ingredients, such as coconut, suitable for dark skin. Most bleaching creams contain hydroquinone, a chemical that works by reducing the skin’s melanin production and gives users of such products lighter skin tones.
“When I had my daughter, I thought about what I could do to help her stay beautiful in her dark skin, and started producing special oils using coconut for children with dark skin,” Onwuamaegbu said.
Despite the efforts of Benson and Onwuamaegbu, significant obstacles stand in the way of eradicating colorism and skin bleaching in Nigeria, across the continent, and globally. According to Benson, one such obstacle is the media, which promotes skin bleaching.
“The media casts lighter-skinned individuals in a more desirable light in every aspect of life, thereby making more dark-skinned women see bleaching as a viable option so that they can be accepted and treated as beautiful and delicate,” she said.
And money for the anti-bleaching efforts is in short supply.
“A lot of people have told me that I am fighting a losing battle in trying to pitch my tent against the billion-dollar cosmetic industry that has made these bleaching products so popular. The social media influencers who have given a platform to suspicious, organic skin lightening products are also on the other side of the divide,” Benson said.
She would love to have more strategic partnerships with relevant stakeholders and to offer trauma-informed care to people who have used skin lightening agents and have either had adverse effects or who show signs of addiction and trauma from colorism.
One of Benson’s dreams for the future is to set up a bleaching rehabilitation center, with multidisciplinary holistic care where darker skinned individuals from all races who have lightened their skin can undergo counseling, get psychological support to deal with their trauma, and reside in a safe space where they can share their experiences with others while falling in love with their skin tones.