Skin-bleaching Among Ghanaians: Exposing the Dangers

Fri, 25 Apr 2008 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

My choice of this topic is a direct response to a request by a female participant who joined the rest of us to discuss my last article on baldness. Like this concerned lady, I am certain that educating my fellow Ghanaians about the dangers of skin-bleaching might be the way forward in both persuading those currently engaged in the practice to give it up and dissuading those who are contemplating engaging in the practice. Simply put, skin-bleaching is the use of chemicals to lighten one’s skin. What most people who engage in skin-beaching are unaware of is the presence of unsafe chemicals in these over-the-counter creams and lotions. Additionally, the unregulated manufacture and distribution of these dangerous chemicals have been on the rise, becoming a very lucrative market for crooks willing to prey on the superficial, unenlightened and naive.

Ingredients in Skin-bleaching Potions and Associated Health Risks

To begin with, most skin-bleaching chemicals contain mercury, a very poisonous substance. It is worth noting that manufacturing and distributing mercury-based skin-lightening agents have been outlawed in Europe and North America (Mire, 2001), so why does the typical Ghanaian assume that these skin color-transforming chemicals are good for him or her? Mercury poisoning, a process that tends to occur gradually, reveals itself via several symptoms, notably “a tight feeling of the chest, chills, diarrhea, metallic taste, nausea, vomiting, emotional instability, irritability, depression, forgetfulness, insomnia, muscular weakness, renal failure, and loss of teeth” (Mire, 2003). Thus, any person experiencing one or more of these symptoms might want to examine, among other things, any over-the-counter skin-lightening potions he or she is using.

While mercury may have been eliminated from some skin-lightening potions, the use of hydroquinone ? the latter is a bleaching ingredient that was discovered by accident in 1938 in a tannery plant by some black workers who complained of the discoloration of their hands (Mire, 2001) ? as the primary agent in many skin-bleaching creams and lotions has been the norm for many decades now. Upon the discovery of hydroquinone, and as was fully expected, a number of unscrupulous scientists began mass-producing it in the United States, later exporting it to other countries. With enough publicity to convince many dark-skinned peoples of the world to purchase these skin-lighteners ? an extended form of slavery, actually ? these evil scientists and their accomplices became very rich in the process!

Social and Cultural Issues Surrounding Skin-lightening

Now that we know our dark skin color was a target for some white people who wanted to make a lot of money, at the expense of our health, we have enough reason to dissuade ourselves from using these chemicals! As explained by Mire (2001), hydroquinone lightens the skin initially, for up to 6 months, and then the process begins to reverse itself. Soon, this chemical begins to attack the layers of skin below the surface, causing permanent damage to the tissues. Consequently, the skin starts to darken and may end up looking like “blue-black spots.” Is this situation familiar to anyone? How many women have we not seen on the streets of Accra, and other Ghanaian towns and villages, with “yellow” faces and “black” arms and legs! By the way, Mire (2001) warns that 2% hydroquinone, the standard quantity of the chemical found in most skin-lightening creams and lotions, has not been proven safe in any laboratory so far.

So, why do people engage in the unhealthy practice of skin-bleaching? De Souza (2008) explains that, while the “quest for beauty” is the ultimate goal of most people, skin color seems to play just as important a role in determining what people consider to be the standard of beauty. To this effect, not even a “beautiful, even-toned, blemish-free skin” is enough for some dark-skinned people: these people want to be “white” to be seen as pretty! Ironically, in interviewing a few white people for this article, they told me categorically that they wished they had brown skin, and wondered why people with dark skin would ever want to change their appearance!

Yes, race plays an important role in how society “values” a person, especially for those living in white-majority lands, but to think that there is something inherently wrong with our dark skin is nothing short of a disgraceful ? and bizarrely successful ? campaign by some non-Blacks to downplay the beauty of the black skin! Roles on television also deceive unenlightened black people that white is better, but we must remember that these are only stereotypes, and the sooner we teach our children to reject these images, the stronger will be their self-confidence as they grow up!

Roles of Government

Sadly, the authorities in Ghana have not done enough to curb the importation of these dangerous products into the country. With the vast array of regulatory agencies in the country, particularly the Ghana Standards Board, skin-bleaching products should have been banned in the country by now, as was done in Kenya in 2001 and in several other African nations. De Souza (2008) believes that the importation of these chemicals must be banned by African leaders because these products are so substandard and toxic, they would never be allowed on store shelves in the originating countries. The twin dangers of flooding African markets with counterfeits and the “adulteration of branded products” should also provide enough reasons to outlaw these commodities altogether. Additionally, passing stricter laws against the sale and distribution of these harmful chemicals may deter would-be distributors.

Lessons from Around the World

Australia’s Sunday Telegraph: In his February 24, 2008, piece for this august newspaper, Miawling Lam warns Australians about two popular but dangerous skin color-lightening products on the market: John Plunkett’s Superfade Original and Thorburn’s Whitening Cream. These products have been known, Lam alleges, to cause “leukemia, liver damage, thyroid disorders and decreases in the formation of melanin.”

USA Today: In a January 2006 piece, Sheryl McCarthy, a freelance journalist, decries the worsening of the “black is beautiful” mantra, one which basically states that “African features [are] also attractive.” In a society where even black role models and icons, such as Beyonce Knowles and Halle Berry, have many “white” features, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince the full-blooded black girl that she is just as beautiful. McCarthy insists that even some white and Asian girls feel inadequate when comparing themselves with those “Barbie” blondes with long hair, so black mothers are not alone in their quest to convince their daughters that they are just as attractive as other girls out there. As Ghanaians, we need to cultivate a sense of worth in our kids, teaching them that their intellectual capacities essentially dwarf any superficial features they may or may not possess.

London’s Daily Mail: Paul Bracchi, writing in the January 13, 2007, edition of the aforesaid newspaper, warns colored people in Harlesden, North-West London, about the introduction to market of a very harmful skin-lightener called Maxi White. Bracchi narrates one person’s horror story: “It worked quite well to start with, but as I carried on using it, my skin became thin and dehydrated. My forehead looked like a crinkled up piece of paper it was so cracked. Then, ugly blotches which developed into boils and ulcers started appearing on my face. I was a complete mess.” These were the customer’s own words! Bracchi concludes: “If [hydroquinone] ? which is used in certain industrial processes ? enters [the] bloodstream, it can cause fatal liver and kidney damage.” So, my fellow Ghanaians, we have been warned.

Lessons for the Future

Arguably, many Ghanaian women (and occasionally men) bleach their skins, in order to appear more “attractive” to the opposite sex. Are Ghanaian men unwilling accomplices in promoting the lighter-is-better stereotype? Do Ghanaian women and, occasionally, their male counterparts feel inferior to Asians, Latinos and whites because of these other groups’ paler skins? It is saddening to observe how some Ghanaians in the United States foolishly “worship” their non-Black bosses! We need to wake up from our slumber and embark on a long-term crusade to reject the white-is-better nonsense! To be successful, we must start the re-education of our children, letting them know that it is their achievements in this world ? and their contributions to humanity ? that matter the most, and not the color of their skin. After all, we have many examples to emulate: Kwame Nkrumah, Kofi Annan, and many other Ghanaians, dead and living, who had left, and continue to leave, indelible footprints in the sands of human achievement!

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.