Every day, millions of women around the world stare into the mirror, scrutinising every inch of their bodies. They pull, pinch and prod at their features, wondering what it will take to look like the women they see on television and in magazines. Psychologically, they are equating these pictures and representations with success and acceptance. In most cases, the overwhelmingly consistent image is that of a woman with a lighter skin tone, and so, many women think that “ideal image” is what’s needed to be seem as more attractive and more likely to access a privileged status. From there, this thinking is that more doors will open, such as better jobs and relationship opportunities. Unsurprisingly, many women (and men) will go through great lengths- think laser treatments, peels, creams, pills etc- to reduce the amount of melanin in and pigment of their skin to achieve this “superior” image. This is one of the biggest reasons why skin lightening products and skin bleaching procedures have become popular around the globe, including in South Africa.
Recently, South African actress and media personality Khanyisile Mbau made headlines for her lightened complexion, claiming that “90% of the colour” of her skin “is cosmetic”. She’s an open and outspoken advocate for skin lightening and how it helps her in the entertainment industry, but also maintains that the maintenance is expensive: in fact, Mbau admits that it costs her up to R10 000 a month. Along with Mbau, other media personalities like Mshoza, Kelly Khumalo and Sorisha Naidoo have all made the news for their lightened skin tones.
And while there are some approved and regulated products on the market, others contain harmful banned chemicals, but are still available in various supermarkets, pharmacies and informal traders, and these are the ones most South Africans can afford. So, the question is: are harsher skin bleaching regulations needed?
Is it really a growing trend in our country? How many women use skin lightening products in South Africa?
In 2018, a documentary claimed that 1 in 3 South African buy skin lightening products, but Africa Check maintains there isn’t enough data to draw any definitive conclusions. However, a survey of 292 Indian and 287 African women conducted by Dr Ncoza Dlova, Head of Dermatology at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, in Kwa-Zulu Natal found that 32.3 % of the participants had used some form of skin lightening products; and The World Health Organisation released a statistic of 35% of all South African women had tried skin lightening products.
Why is skin lightening so controversial? Identity and the legacy of colonialism.
For decades Western ideals of beauty have permeated the global consciousness and informed the status quo of what’s perceived to be attractive and, often, what a successful woman looks like. Of course, the big problem here is that this “ideal” image perpetuated by cosmetic companies and media outlets is Eurocentric and promotes white standards of beauty. However, as Shingi Mtero, who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching at Rhodes University, points out: “ When people say it’s about whiteness, it’s not necessarily to physically be white, it’s about wanting to access things white people have easy access to—privileges, economic and social status”.
With years and years of being told what “real” beauty is and how it influences your chances of being socially accepted and successful in any industry, it’s no surprise that many women place so much value in their appearance and turn to seemingly quick-fix solutions to their “problem” of not being “white enough”. In a feature for BRIGHT, Wana Udobang writes, “…television images and billboards have always been emblazoned with light-skinned faces and much of the media and popular culture are often complicit in the perpetuation of these ideals. Film and commercials director Tolu Ajayi says that in advertising, light skin is often viewed as an ‘aspirational look’.” Of course, it also inflames debates around colourism, which is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”.
Are skin lightening products legal in South Africa?
Skin lightening products come in many forms: creams, tablets and injectables. Of course, as the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) of South Africa told IOL , government notice R1 227 prohibits the sale of any cosmetic product that claims to be a skin bleacher, skin lightener , skin whitener (“brightener” and “toner” are permitted, however). Specifically, any product that contains steroids, hydroquinone, mercury and lead are banned in South Africa (and many other places in the world). Recently, a couple in England were arrested for importing, making and selling skin lightening products. Of course, these products can be divided into legal, illegal and unregulated categories. The legal creams and treatments can only be prescribed by certified dermatologists, and usually used for treating hyperpigmentation. Most reputable skin lightening treatments are expensive, and so many women might turn to over-the-counter and unregulated products that might contain illegal and extremely harmful ingredients. Because of this, the market is vulnerable to over-the-counter, unregulated and unsupervised use of skin lighteners. Smaller businesses and informal traders continue to sell the products because there is still a demand for it, which experts say is fuelled by celebrities, advertising and social media.
The dangers of skin lightening or bleaching
Because of the many harmful chemicals that the products contain- such as mercury, phenol, steroids and hydroquinone, there is huge risk involved when using them. Some of the consequences include thinning skin, permanent scarring, live and kidney damage, psychosis and cancer. Due to a lack of education and awareness around the dangers, 90% of skin lightening products users are unaware of these effects, according to a study by medical experts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
How do illegal skin lightening products get into South Africa? What are the regulations?
In a 2015 Medical Brief feature, concern was raised around South Africa being a dumping ground for these illegal products, many of which came from Europe (despite also being banned across the continent).
In the same write-up, the Head of Dermatology at UCT, Prof. Nonhlanhla Khumalo says the, “ biggest problem lies with the port authorities who are supposed to ensure (imported cosmetics) comply with the law. Some products listed illegal ingredients on the label. Someone should have stopped them”. What’s more, as Nontando Mposo writes in the Cape Argus, “ Due to the notion that skin-lightening products are classified by the CTFA as cosmetics instead of pharmaceuticals, a lesser degree of control is executed therefore allowing the greater availability of products whether it is locally manufactured or imported.”
It’s also becoming increasing difficult for authorities to test products, and sometimes the dangerous mercury component is added to a products that has been tested afterwards. Then there are also various innovations around the products, like glutathione, which is a chemical compound that can be ingested or injected.
And while the CTFA does regulate the labelling, there is a severe lack of enforcement by authorities , so clearly, this show that the law should be clamping down more on these dangerous products entering the country.
More awareness from the Government
It’s understandable that cheap (but illegal!) products will be the go-to for many South Africans, especially since not everyone can afford to see a dermatologist. Therefore, the onus should be on the Government and media to continually highlight the dangers of using these creams, pills and injectables and clamp down on businesses stocking them. “We also need more representation and destigmatisation of darker skin in mainstream media and advertising, coupled with the stronger enforcement of the law to help ensure no one is harmed using this banned products,” states Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director. Until then, however, people need to self-educate and do their own research to ensure they do not harm themselves with skin lightening products.
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