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.