In Nigeria, there is a growing trend among women and men to change their skin colour.
Of interest are the new terms: ‘organic skin care,’ ‘skin toning,’ which many believe are other words to tone down the derogatory term, bleaching.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77 per cent of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products, the world’s highest percentage.
Mariam Akande, a 32-year-old graduate of political science, now self-employed, owns organic stores in the nation’s capital Abuja.
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According to her, sales have tripled since she started the business, with customers spread nationwide.
“When I started in 2017, I had few customers, I was trained in Lagos, a skin therapist put me through.
“I can’t complain at all, business is thriving, we get orders everywhere, I have an online marketing team who make sure online customers get their orders timely.”
For Akande, raw materials were sourced locally and readily available, with routine training for intended skin care enthusiasts.
In Nigeria, beauty standards, often promoted by the media and advertising companies, have erroneously reinforced that lighter skin tone is more desirable, forcing men and women to bleach.
Skin bleaching products are reported to contain ingredients that prevent the production of melanin, the body chemical that darkens skin. One of such ingredients is hydroquinone, a depigmenting agent used to lighten the skin.
Even though the practice has been associated with a number of adverse health effects including skin cancer, kidney, liver or nerve damage, there appears to be no end in sight.
Pills and injectables, containing bleaching ingredients like glutathione, have now become the new frontiers for those seeking a lighter complexion.
Such intravenous infusions, mostly patronised by the affluent, are readily available in many skin clinics.
According to Mr. Iruedo Osaruwense, a public affairs analyst, skin bleaching or skin lightening in Nigeria may possibly be likened to male preference, with many men preferring light skinned girls.
“There are terms used to describe light skinned girls here in Nigeria, `oyinbo pepper’,’ `yellow pawpaw’ and many more. How many terms do we have for dark skinned women?
“Even if those terms exist, it can be degrading. I will always remember one, `blacky shadow,’ that’s because I was called that.
“So in the scale of attraction, light skinned girls rank higher. Nigerian musicians have made it easy for women to understand that light skinned women are preferred.
“Omo Pupa’ by Victor Olaiya is one example. Should we leave the music directors out? No. They prefer to use fair skin vixens in their videos because they think they appear better on High Definition.
“What of the banks? The new generation banks will choose a light skinned girl over a darker one.’’
He said this disparity in taste is the reason skin bleaching is big business in Nigeria.
He added that some indulge in the practice, believing that they are only taking care of the skin to ‘make it glow.’
A civil servant, Mr Michael Onunkwo, says the trend is as a result of perception of beauty being light skinned.
To him, the advent of social media may be partly blamed for the rise and acceptance of the new trend.
He also reiterated that in many parts of Africa and in Nigeria, light-skinned women are considered more beautiful and therefore more likely to succeed in some fields, such as in the modelling and movie industries.
“A lot of these people who are addicted to bleaching suffer from severe stretch marks, poor wound healing, abnormal odour, excessive sweating and the likes, some even age faster unknowingly.’’
A dermatologist with a private hospital in Abuja, Dr Racheal Inuwa, says what is more worrisome is the trend for women to change the skin colours of themselves and their babies.
According to Inuwa, it is important for regulatory agencies to regulate importation of unregistered skin care products into the country.
Corroborating further, she said: “a lot of people still do not know the chemical composition in these creams and oils they use, some may develop life threatening diseases unknowingly.
“Some of them contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury as key ingredients.’’
The dermatologist said there is a need to increase conversations around skin colour and beauty, adding that the fashion and beauty world and the media ought to go beyond colourism.
In the words of Senior Registrar in Dermatology, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, (LASUTH) Dr Folakemi Cole-Adiefe, “our dark skin is a natural adaptation for sun protection.
“People who are lighter don’t have as much melanin which is the pigment in the skin that helps to absorb harmful sun rays to prevent it from penetrating into the skin and causing damage.
“This is the reason why people who live with albinism who have no melanin, are more at risk of skin cancer and that is because they do not have the natural melanin that dark people have.
“It is also the reason why skin cancer is more common in Caucasians than blacks.”
Experts agree that there is a need for collective effort to end the stereotype and popular erroneous assumption that a fair and lighter skin is more beautiful or appealing.