Skin Bleaching Thrives Despite Ugandan Government Ban on Dangerous Cosmetics

by Halima Abdallah Kisule
- Uganda -

Scores of Ugandans continue to bleach their skin despite a government ban on the sale of several lotions, creams, gels and soaps which are largely used to whiten, even and tone the skin.

Due to ineffective enforcement of the ban, these dangerous cosmetics are easily accessible anywhere in Uganda; whether sold over the counter, along the roadside or by hawkers, vendors move the skin lighteners easily due to high demand. Such is the popularity that skin-whitening products have gained today in Uganda.

Medically, skin whitening (or bleaching) products are used for treating pigmentation disorders like freckles, pregnancy marks, blotchy uneven skin tone, patches of brown to gray skin and age spots. Skin pigmentation occurs because the body either produces too much or too little melanin, the pigment responsible for creating the color of our eyes, skin and hair. It also provides crucial protection against the sun’s rays by absorbing ultra-violet light. Doctors say that those with darker skin are less susceptible to sunburn and the overall effects of sun damage.

According to dermatologists, skin bleaching can be achieved through a combination of treatments that reduce or block some amount of the body’s melanin production. Usually in the form of topical lotions, gels, pills and creams, these products contain melanin-inhibiting ingredients along with sunscreen. These treatments also contain amounts of hydroquinone, or mercury.

However, other cosmetics companies use natural ingredients to make melanin-inhibiting products. Extracted from plant leaves like the berry family, shrubs and pears, their naturally occurring arbutin leads to bleaching.

In Uganda, the practice of skin bleaching is common among adults with dark skin, especially women, but men also do it with little regard for the dangers posed to their bodies. Some people even use the products for anal bleaching to reduce naturally darker pigmentation of the genital and perineal area.

Consumers of bleaching cosmetics claim that they want to enhance their beauty. One woman who declined to be named, explains, “One has to look good, by having fair, lighter skin.”

Unfortunately, her skin is now multi-colored from bleaching. She has red skin on her face, yellow on her arms and dark skin on her back. The skin on her knees, toes and finger joints failed to lighten and remain black.

For this woman, the condition of her skin has only brought her shame; she now tries to cover most parts of her body in an attempt to conceal the damage done by the products she thought would enhance her beauty.

Those in the medical profession explain that this condition occurs from allergic dermatitis or irritant dermatitis (abnormal, extensive and often local inflammation of the skin), both of which are common among people who have not previously used the bleaching cosmetics.

“I have cases where people get severe skin burns. It happens when people change to something new which causes allergic dermatitis and irritant dermatitis,” says Dr Misaki Wayengera of Makerere University Medical School.

He explains that the skin of the people using these bleaching products get inflamed, turns red, enlarges and begins to loose function as the cells fail to produce melanin.

Wayengera says that bleaching can be achieved medically using low dosage hydroquinone, recommended at 2%. He advises that it should be used only in the areas of the skin that need to be lightened. He also advised consumers to always read the contents of cosmetics because those that bleach cause health problems like skin cancer, leukemia, thyroid disorders and delay or prevent the ability to diagnose leprosy. Mercury is the most toxic of these ingredients and leads to liver problems.

Though the East African Custom Management Act of 2006 banned the import of all soaps containing mercury, products like Mekako soaps are readily available in the country having been smuggled in before being re-exported to neighboring Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

“They are smuggled in jerricans disguised as water while others come in through ordinary containers but are declared as cosmetics, when [in reality] they are drugs that fall under the NDA mandate,” says Gyavira Musoke, Head of Imports Inspection at Uganda’s National Bureau of Standards (UNBS).

UNBS says that Kenya is blaming Uganda for failing to stop the importation of this toxic cosmetic despite the existence of the law. This is just one of the 400 prohibited cosmetic ingredients (that are defined as drugs under the Uganda National Drug Authority (NDA) regulations) that are on the open market. Products containing hydroquinone are still for sale after traders asked the Ministry of Tourism to give them some time to sell off their stock.

Ready markets for these highly valued cosmetics suggest that smuggling won’t stop any time soon, but demand alone does not explain why one would continue to use these dangerous products.

“Such a person lacks self-esteem, has low self-efficacy and a perception that she or he looks ugly,” says Mr Robert Wandera, Coordinator of the Psychology Department at Makerere University. “It is common among women who are not educated,” he adds.

Wandera’s colleague, Mr Calistas, says that it is very dangerous to have low self-esteem because severe cases can lead to suicide.

He urges, “Do something positive to counter [your low self-esteem]. Take advantage of the good parts of your body or talents.”

Prolonged use of bleaching cosmetics can indeed be disastrous both psychologically and physically. One lady who I encountered on the street declined to be named nor talk about her skin. Her dry, pale face showed no happiness. She had wrinkles too – not from old age, but from the effects of starting and then stopping the use of these cosmetics. I could easily read the disappointment in her face when I asked her to talk about her skin. Her response is a clear testimony to the negative effects of bleaching cosmetics and hint at the lengths some will go to for beauty. Her unhappiness is the other side of beauty that we rarely see, but one that can easily be avoided.

About the Author
Halimah Abdallah Kisule is a journalist in northern Uganda who, for the last seven years, has covered human rights, health, diplomacy, politics and education for numerous news outlets. She holds a diploma in Journalism and Media Studies and will soon receive her BA in Education from Makere University in Kampala.

Previously she worked for the independent newspapers, The Daily Monitor and The Weekly Observer, covering law and human rights issues, providing both with extensive investigative journalism.

Halimah endeavors to use her writing skills to bring awareness to the human struggle and find solutions to society’s problems. She is married with two children.

Posted in Science, The World
5 comments on “Skin Bleaching Thrives Despite Ugandan Government Ban on Dangerous Cosmetics
  1. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Halimah, your article revealed to me a new area of concern for women, and some men, who are affected by unreal standards of beauty. I did not realize that the need to conform to unnatural standards was such a plague in Africa, but I ought to have guessed.
    It isn’t only uneducated women who are the most susceptible to things that will make them look like the unreal standard that is put before them. Highly educated women in the US spend billions of dollars on cosmetics and surgery to make themselves conform to the look that the global corporate media tell us is desirable.

  2. Aralena Leroy says:

    It is a shame that women around the world continue to put their health at risk to meet someone else’s standard of beauty.
    The media bombards us from day one with the message that we will never be good enough until we’ve applied their anti-wrinkle cream, gone under the knife, been jabbed with Botox needles, starved ourselves weak, and spent half of our income on their — largely useless — products.
    It’s a great way to get our minds of politics and the economy, though, isn’t it? With women dedicating so much time to eliminating cellulite, they won’t have time to worry about where their tax dollars are being invested…

  3. mjtlove says:

    the truth is dark-skinned men & women of african descent continue to suffer the legacy of white world supremacy. the desire to bleach one’s skin is similar to the obsession to lose weight: a racist society devalues women of african descent & markets women of european descent as beautiful, intelligent & powerful.
    aralena leroy astutely points out the seduction of the media as it relates to our collective self-worth. ironically, many women of european descent have invested their money in cultivating african features (full lips, large hips, round ass, vuluptous breasts, i.e.) once considered savage yet now are deemed ‘popular’ in the lucrative fashion industry.
    marcus garvey once said, “people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; beauty is a biological inheritance – yet women of african descent must learn to affirm the divine within. loving ourselves & each other in our own image is a good place to start.

  4. SuadHamada says:

    The upbringing of children is important in enhancing the confidence of individuals, as children should be raised to love their look and color of their skin by teaching them to love themselves and other by their personalities and not how they look.

  5. Yakinican says:

    I’m white, I don’t like my skin tone, I love to tan and make it darker. If I like to make my skin darker I have no problem with black people trying to make their skin lighter. To me its’ just personal preference. Its’ just like some of the thousands and thousands of people who do plastic sugery to have breast implants or facial restructures they want to look the way they want to and if its’ what makes them happy I am happy for them aswell. Click Me

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