Skin bleaching or lightening is a global phenomenon, but there is a general misconception in Nigeria that skin bleaching and toning are the same. Skin bleaching is lightening of the skin whereas skin toning is freshening up the skin. In recent years the practice has come under fire because of its potential negative health effects and association with colonialism and self-imagery.
There is evidence that some types of skin-whitening products use harmful active ingredients such as mercurous chloride and hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is banned in many countries can only be prescribed by a doctor.
There is a growing market in more expensive nontoxic products. Japan and the Pacific are big markets for high quality European skin lightening products. In India skin lighteners remain popular for both men and women despite some television advertisements being taken down. In 2007 One of Bollywood’s biggest film stars, Shahrukh Khan, was criticised by Asian campaigners for promoting a skin-lightening cream.
In India, Anglo-Dutch skincare group Vaseline launched an app called “Transform Your Face” on Facebook in 2010 to promote its range of skin-lightening products for men, advertised by Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor. The app gave users a chance to digitally whiten their profile pictures and remove dark spots – an idea that drew a largely negative response from the blogosphere.
“Vaseline’s latest marketing campaign, largely targeted at south Asia but accessible globally, will probably make you uncomfortable,” wrote columnist Alexis Madrigal on the website of US magazine The Atlantic.
“Modern humans’ desire to make their skin darker or lighter is a rather icky reminder of the pigment-o-cracy that exists in many countries.”
Bleaching is a process where different products lighten normally dark skin. These agents remove the melanin pigment, but do not destroy the melanin producing cells. Thus, daily use combined with less exposure to the sun can keep the appearance of a lighter skin. It can also be regarded a sociological and psychological phenomenon of being dark-skinned but wanting to be lighter-skinned or white.
Those who pursue a lighter in Nigeria are from all age groups, both men and women. It is more prevalent in young, unmarried and educated women.
In times past, skin bleaching was popularly regarded as the practice of prostitutes and desperate divorcees. The media often portrayed women who bleach as naïve, irrational and gullible. But today, ladies are no longer ashamed to bleach or even talk about it proudly.
According to the World Health Organization, 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products regularly. It is also reported that some women use these products for as long as 20 years.
The number is growing by the day. It is generally believed that this practice is influenced by deep racial inferiority, ignorance of identity or a crisis of identity but it is important to note that there is more to it than this.
For some of the women, skin lightening satisfies their need for attention, their desire for beauty as seen in magazines where models and celebrities have light coloured skin. It could be seen as perpetuating the Colonial belief that being lighter is better. Too often the products they use have a bad effect on their skin, whic his the very thing they are trying to improve.