Thu, Jan 27, 2005 - Page 6 News List

African women risk health in a quest for lighter skin

BEAUTY Although skin lightening creams may cause kidney damage and psychiatric disorders, the wish to have lighter skin runs deep in many African societies


At a beauty shop in downtown Nairobi, shelves packed with so-called skin lightening creams in luxurious packets and names such as Fair & Lovely, Venus, Lady Diana and Fairever fill almost an entire aisle.

Jeanne, who is on a visit from Rwanda, is selecting a cream and notes they are very popular in her homeland as "the women want to brighten their skin. Our men like light women," she says.

Jeanne has used skin-lightening creams for six years, and says she does not plan to stop.

"My husband and other people give me compliments now," she says, but admits that she sometimes gets black spots on her face.

Skin-lightening cream is no ordinary facial cream. Some contain mercury, which is known to cause neurological and kidney damage, speech and hearing impairments, and can also lead to psychiatric disorders.

The other ingredients in skin-lightening creams include hydroquinone, which can cause blue-black discolorations and also lead to neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system. Numerous studies worldwide have shown that women using the creams have suffered mercury poisoning. Modern lightening creams are somewhat milder, but can still bring unwanted results.

Patrick Munyiri, a cosmetician at a beauty center and school in Nairobi, discourages his clients and students from using them.

"You can use it for a while, but after a few years you will see the repercussions. You get pimples, rashes or black spots that turn into wounds. Often they don't heal. You're stuck with it".

He says young girls know the creams are dangerous, but do not heed the warnings.

Angelica, a customer at a downtown beauty shop, says she once tried a lightening cream.

"But my skin reacted very badly. Now I would not try it again. And I think it looks weird to have different colors in your face and on the rest of your body," she says.

The wish to look lighter runs deep in many African societies.

In Nigeria, where the use of skin-lightening creams is widespread, an estimated 77 percent of women use them. In Senegal, the figure is 52 percent, in South Africa 35 percent and in Mali 25 percent.

Researchers in South Africa have pointed out that "society has a significant impact on the misuse of skin-lightening agents. It is known that the majority of black men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives."

These opinions resound at shopfloor level.

"Our men make us do it! Most girls and women know its dangerous, but they don't care. If a lighter woman walks in to a room, she'll get all the looks," says Macerlin, a beauty shop assistant.

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