Skin-whitening cosmetics is a multi-billion dollar industry, and with up to 70% of women in parts of Africa using lightening creams, it’s an area of much contention. Which is why I was proud to see Uganda take a proactive position on the ban of imported cosmetic goods containing mercury and hydroquinone.
Currently, 75% of Nigerian women and between 52% – 67% of Senegalese women use skin lightening products. Demand is also high in Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya where buoyant economies and advertising have targeted young women of marriageable age.
The ban has been in force since March and will restrict traders and importers from selling any products containing hydroquinone and mercury in Uganda. Though there are several products with these substances circulating in the market, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) is concentrating on putting a plug in the import pipeline.
The consequences of hydroquinone and mercury
Hydroquinone is used to lighten the dark patches of skin (also called hyperpigmentation, melasma, and freckles) caused by pregnancy, birth control pills, hormone medicine, or injury to the skin. This medicine works by blocking the process in the skin that leads to discoloration. Regular use of hydroquinone can cause serious irritation of the skin, especially for people that already have sensitive skin or allergies. In some cases, hydroquinone can cause extreme redness, itching or even a burning sensation when it is applied to the skin.
Hydroquinone works to reduce the amount of melanin your skin produces, which in turn makes your skin lighter in appearance, however, doing this makes your skin more susceptible to UVA and UVB rays that can lead to dangerous sunburns, and over a prolonged period of time, an increased risk of certain types of skin cancer. Hydroquinone also makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage, much the same way topical treatments like salicylic acid do.
“Aisha, a 26 year old resident of kawempe on the outskirts of Kampala is not a happy lady. She regrets the day she used some cream from a cosmetics shop in the hope of becoming beautiful but today her skin looks as if she was “roasted” and it is multi-pigmented. This is a story familiar in our society where an attempt of cosmetic surgery goes wrong” – Red Pepper Newspaper, Uganda.
Skin lightening, a common practice in Uganda, yet is something that few people will admit to. The price for beauty has often seen many dangerous products emerge on the market only to be quickly removed through the swift action of local health authorities. However, skin lightening products had escaped regulation until recently. Although individuals have started speaking out against skin lightening, governments need to take action. Regulations should ensure that the creams are safe and that illegal products are kept off the market. In addition, the truth that paler skinned isn’t a panacea and that black is beautiful too should be celebrated and shared.