Illegal skin lightening products can be easily purchased on street corners or at cash and carry stores in Stellenbosch.
Products at a popular local store are sold at low prices ranging between R18 and R55. Furthermore, none of the skin lightening products contained a list of ingredients. “I don’t know if it’s safe, but a lot of people buy it,” said a shop assistant who wished to remain anonymous.
This may be due to the fact that skin lightening products contain a number of banned agents. Professor Ncoza Dlova, head of the Dermatology Department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal listed the most common ingredients: hydroquinone, topical steroids and mercury.
The health effects can be disastrous for users according to Dlova. “The side effects vary from irreversible thinning of the skin, stretch marks, skin infections, pimples, permanent dark marks and skin cancer,” she said.
“The recent use of gluthianone injections and tablets is a concern because there are no studies to support its use,” said Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo, head of the Dermatology Division at the University of Cape Town. She suspects that women think it is more fashionable to be light-skinned.
South African celebrities such as Khanyi Mbau and Mshoza have publicly admitted to using gluthianone.
The skin lightening industry is one of the most profitable in the world and generates sales up to $10 billion. Skin lightening practices point to social issues that are most prevalent in Africa and Asia.
Dlova conducted a survey on the use of skin-lightening practices in South Africa. Her research shows that 25% – 67% of women in sub-Saharan Africa use skin-lightening creams. Her research also showed that a large percentage of women associate a lighter skin with self-esteem, socio-economic class and better job opportunities.
“This post-colonisation inferiority complex promotes this idea that being fair-skinned and thin is the be-all-and-end-all,” said Dlova. Her campaign aims to draw attention from government on the issue and to promote the message that black is beautiful.
American ethnographer, Dr Yaba Blay explained: “Black women place value on fair skin because of its connection to whiteness. This reflects how an entire society continues to privilege whiteness.”- Christina Pitt