Sorisha Naidoo, left to right, in 2016 and 2001. Naidoo is a skin-lightening cream businesswoman. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Sorisha Naidoo, left to right, in 2016 and 2001. Naidoo is a skin-lightening cream businesswoman. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

South African women continue to use dangerous skin lightening products‚ decades after tests confirmed that some ingredients cause chronic side-effects, a study has found.

"The motivation driving the practice is often the desire to lighten one’s skin because of a perceived notion of increased privileges‚ higher social standing‚ better employment and increased marital prospects associated with lighter skin‚" according to research contained in the latest edition of the South African Journal of Science

"This perception‚ coupled with influential marketing strategies from transnational cosmetic houses using iconic celebrities‚ increases the allure for women primarily‚ but also increasingly‚ men," researchers wrote

The study of 600 women of African and Indian ancestry in South Africa found that 33% confirmed using various cosmetics to lighten their skin.

"Unfortunately‚ the main fear is that the presence of these legally available products could potentially cloud the distinction of the consumer between products that are tested and those that are damaging and illegal‚" researchers noted.

The researchers were from the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town‚ the division of dermatology at Groote Schuur Hospital, and the department of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Encouraging the destigmatisation of dark skin‚ randomly testing cosmetics for dangerous substances, and imposing penalties on manufacturers are some of the measures proposed by the authors to curb the use of illegal skin lightening products.

They warned that extensive use of skin lightening products could result in permanent dark spots on the skin.

Television personality and actress Khanyi Mbau recently made headlines for using an intravenous skin-lightening treatment between her toes and knuckles, which prompted calls for an urgent investigation into the safety of the product.

Despite their potentially toxic effects‚ the application of topical skin lighteners remains popular throughout the African continent and has grown in the Caribbean‚ Asia and the Far East‚ the researchers found.

The underlying reasons for this growth were varied, but were strongly linked to historical racism‚ perceived benefits of lighter skin and the marketing expertise of cosmetics companies.

Many countries in Africa‚ including Uganda‚ Kenya‚ SA and Gambia‚ have banned skin lightening products. Ghana‚ Zambia‚ Jamaica and the Ivory Coast have promoted public health education to dissuade people from using bleaching creams.

"Despite numerous countries in Africa making a concerted effort to stop the chronic use of skin lightening products through national bans of constituent compounds such as hydroquinone and mercury‚ there still remains an inconsistent level of regulation within the sector‚" said researchers.

Partly to blame for their continued use on the continent is the products’ classification as cosmetics rather than drugs‚ product labels failing to list all ingredients and even misbranding.

"Most African countries have regulatory organisations. In SA‚ the watchdog organisation is the Cosmetic‚ Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CTFA). This association‚ as in other African countries‚ controls the policies relating to labelling and regulation and should work closely with governmental sectors relating to importation and availability of products.

"Unfortunately‚ the current status quo seems to be a lack of enforcement of existing regulation – a topic that needs to be addressed at the governmental level‚" researchers said.

But they warned that governments could not tackle the issue through policy changes alone.

Among the strategies proposed to initiate real change‚ was the need to advocate for the "destigmatisation of dark skin" and pressurise cosmetics manufacturers to change their concept of beauty and discourage skin bleaching.

"There is an urgent need to implement policies and recommendations for preventing the influx and illicit sale

and use of untested skin lighteners‚" the researchers said.

They called for new strategies to force the cosmetics industry to be more compliant‚ including random tests on products and penalties for their producers.

"The concept of beauty is a tentative and sensitive issue," they said.

TMG Digital

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