MOTUNRAYO JOEL in this two-part series writes about the growing craze for bleaching among Nigerian men and the reasons why such men try to lighten their skin
Twenty-three-year-old Segun Ogunlude’s skin is a sight to behold. It is dotted by dark patches and small reddish blotches that easily identify him as one of the growing number of male Nigerians who bleach their skin.
“I was dark-skinned some years back and I didn’t like it,” Ogunlude, a transporter who said he started skin bleaching three years ago, said. “Now that I’m much lighter, I feel good. In fact, I don’t joke with my skin. I have my bath at least twice a day and I use a particular bleaching cream and it works like magic. My skin feels smooth and looks toned,” he said.
A general physician, Dr. Kunle Ogunyomi, defines skin bleaching as a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone. Several studies have shown that bleaching is dangerous. But Ogunlude said he would not stop bleaching.
He said, “I know a lot of men want to have my skin colour. I get comments from women about my nice skin. But it didn’t come easy. I had to continuously pamper and care for my skin. I’m proud of my present colour.
“I don’t believe bleaching creams are produced wholly for women. Men too can use bleaching creams.”
‘Women like fair men’
In Nigeria, and other parts of Africa, skin bleaching has always been known as a popular, though dangerous, beauty therapy. But it is mostly embraced by women. According to a recent study by the World Health Organisation, Nigeria has the highest number of women using bleaching and skin-toning creams in Africa. The study says 77 per cent of Nigerian women use skin-whitening products of various kinds. Togo came in second with 59 per cent and Senegal third with 27 per cent.
However, male bleaching, which is not an entirely new phenomenon in Nigeria, is now gaining ground. For several years, only a few popular and well-to-do Nigerian males bleached. Today, Daniel Ohiku is one of the growing number of Nigerian males of different socioeconomic groups who bleach. Ohiku said he would not mind using the last money on him to purchase his favourite bleaching cream.
“I don’t joke with my cream, if today I hear that the cream is no longer produced in Nigeria, I would find a way to get it from neighbouring African countries. I am proud of it and what it has turned my skin to and women love it,” he said.
Some popular men who have publicly admitted to bleaching include Ghanaian boxer, Bukom Banku and a Nigerian, Okuneye Olanrewaju.
Despite the claim by some men that women find men who use lightening cream attractive, a cross-section of women told our correspondent that they find bleaching repulsive.
Omolabake Lawal, a teacher, said “I don’t like guys who bleach their skin; it is a turn off for me. I see no reason why a guy should bleach his skin. I prefer natural fairness. I wouldn’t mind dating a light-skinned guy, as long as his skin tone is natural and not artificial.”
Similarly, Joy Okengwu, said, “I’m not one that is picky; I wouldn’t mind dating a guy that is light-skinned. What matters to me is his attitude and temperament. But I can never date a guy who bleaches his skin.”
The business of whitening lotion is a multi-million dollar business. Some of the people in the trade specialise in mixing different kinds of cream and chemicals to make bespoke lightening creams. Others sell injections and pills that are marketed as fast-acting skin lighteners.
Chinonso, a businessman in Ikeja, Lagos, is a player in the booming cosmetics industry that ensures that Ogundele and other male bleachers do not run out of creams. Apart from mixing skin-lightening ingredients for people who want to bleach their skin, Chinonso also makes a product for males who want to have artificial pink lips. He calls it ‘sexy pink lip.’ Chinonso said more men now bleach their skin.
He said, “Many years ago, convincing a man to lighten his skin sounded like a taboo. Today, things are different; men now care for their skin. More men want to look good; they want to hear positive comments about their skin tone. I make a good amount of money from mixing creams which I sell to both men and women,” he said.
Although Chinonso refused to share all the secrets of his trade, he said he spent about six hours mixing his creams.
He said, “I cannot disclose the products I use to produce the creams; but they are fantastic products that lighten the skin. I wasn’t as light as I am now, what you see now is as a result of hard work and perseverance. I cannot imagine myself growing dark, it would break my heart. I love my skin colour; I believe it is my selling point. Men who want to bleach their skin approach me for help, even women too.”
A cosmetics businessman at Ikeja, Lagos, Mr. Johnson Kingsley, said 80 per cent of the products on his shelf were bleaching creams.
“Bleaching and whitening creams are what men and women want. I make more money from selling bleaching creams; hence the reason most of the products I sell are bleaching creams. I give my customers what they want,” he said.
In many parts of Africa, light skin is associated with success and prestige. Some historians claim it is one of the dark heritages of colonial rule. Also, light-skinned women are usually considered as being more beautiful than dark-skinned women.
Experts have however countered that skin bleaching is a dangerous pastime that should not be embraced for any reason. The risks associated with the use of bleaching creams include blood cancers such as leukaemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys, as well as a severe skin condition called ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade.
Ohiku, who is a hair stylist at Ikeja, Lagos, said he had heard reports of skin bleaching causing cancer, but he didn’t believe it.
“I have been using my bleaching cream for more than five years and I have not had cancer. I don’t believe bleaching creams cause cancer. In Nigeria, rumours spread fast, if one is not careful, one would believe everything one hears,” he said.
Remi Alade also works in Ikeja with Ohiku as a hair stylist. He described his bleached skin as a “selling point.”
“I just love looking light; I see nothing wrong in bleaching my skin, as long as it doesn’t harm me. Light-skinned men are seen as attractive, just like light-skinned women. Moreover, Nigeria’s weather is quite harsh, if one isn’t careful, one would look black. I take care of my skin and I’m proud to say so. I was once dark-skinned, I didn’t like my looks. I think I look better now,” he said.
Six or half a dozen?
Is there a difference between skin toning and skin bleaching? Seun Abayomi, an employee of a security company in the Agege area of Lagos, who uses a lightening cream, thinks so.
“I think bleaching is a strong word, I personally use creams that tone my skin. My skin grew dark overtime because of the nature of my job which is why I decided to tone it. I don’t bleach,” he said.
However, a Consultant Physician/Dermatologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Funmi Ajose, said there is a difference.
“Skin toning is not the same as skin bleaching. The process of skin toning involves removing dead cells from one’s skin. However, I must stress that people who tone, don’t change their skin colour. They only remove stains and dead cells from their skin. This process enhances the skin and makes it not to look dull,” he said.
A Consultant Physician/Dermatologist at the Federal Medical Centre, Abuja, Dr. Haroun Adamu, however said skin bleaching, lightening and whitening all refer to the same thing.
He said, “Skin whitening, lightening and bleaching refer to the practice of using chemical substances to lighten the skin by reducing the melanin concentration in the skin. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proven to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles.’’
According to Ajose, bleaching creams are generally inappropriate, no matter the term used to differentiate them.
She said, “The fact that you are removing the pigment from your skin alone can pose a problem. Melanin is in the skin to protect it from the harsh ultraviolet sun rays; these rays are harmful and melanin absorbs them. The body produces the appropriate quantity of this pigment for each person. When you remove the pigment through bleaching, you are indirectly exposing yourself to the sun, which is why some develop skin cancer.
“Hydroquinone and mercury are dangerous substances in bleaching creams. Hydroquinone however is not as deadly as the other substances. It has been found to be very effective for treating hyper pigmentation issues. However, too much of this substance in the body is dangerous.”
Similarly, Dr. Adamu said hydroquinone has raised concerns about skin cancer especially when used in higher concentration and for prolonged period.
He said, “This concern is as a result of the extent of absorption in humans and the incidence of cancers in rats in several studies where adult rats were found to have increased rates of cancers. This has led to its over-the-counter ban in several countries. It is expected that this negative effects will apply equally to men and women. But it must be noted that the overwhelming abusers of bleaching creams in Nigeria are women.
“For the treatment of common skin diseases, dermatologists typically recommend the short term use of hydroquinone cream with a maximum dose of two to four per cent that is Food and Drug Administration approved, but still happens to be a bit controversial.
“It is used for a short duration and for medically indicated uses. Other non- hydroquinone creams can also be safely used under professional guidance.
“But the vast majority of people in Nigeria obtain bleaching creams from dubious sources like the market place, so-called beauty shops and other unregulated and unprofessional sources. The mixtures are usually in excessive doses designed to impress the buyer with instant results without regard to the overall side effects or health of the unsuspecting user.”
Ajose also said that men who bleached suffered more adverse effects than women.
“The men that come to me for skin treatment, as a result of skin bleaching, suffer worse side effects than women. Their skin turns into hard leather. This is because men are more exposed to sun rays than women. Men stay out in the sun longer than women; hence the sun damages their skin more vigorously than women. It is unsightly, and if they are exposed to the sun continuously, their skin or that particular area on the skin can become cancerous,” he said.
Other side effects of skin bleaching, include exogenous ochronosis which is the darkening of the skin, said Adamu.
He added that such condition darkens the skin permanently and it becomes resistant to any treatment.
Adamu added that the overuse of skin lightening agents could also cause pigmentation to build up in one’s extremities (fingers, toes, ears etc), thereby causing them to look darker and mismatched.
African governments fight back
Across Africa, governments are now making efforts to stop skin bleaching. Next month, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority is set to ban the importation of products that contain skin-lightening chemicals. The ban is hoped to deter people from using such products. Last year, Ivory Coast also banned all skin-whitening creams and lotions over fears that the cosmetic products could cause long-term health problems.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, where a wholesale ban of bleaching cream is not being considered, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control has adopted various measures to curb the influx of these creams into the market.
The Public Relations Officer, NAFDAC, Mr. Anslem Okonkwo, said the agency had banned the importation of some of the key ingredients used in the manufacturing of the creams.
“On our part, any time we have information of any company making use of those ingredients, we close down such company,” Okonkwo said.
But health experts have said these measures might not be enough to curb the growing craze.
Ajose said, “I don’t know if the Federal Government can ban skin bleaching, there are many neighbouring countries where bleaching creams are not banned. Nigerians will purchase skin bleaching creams from those countries. Instead, what the federal government can do is to persuade institutions to discourage bleaching.’’
Adamu said a regulation of the use of bleaching creams is better than a ban.
“What we need is not an outright ban, but we need to tightly regulate the use of the comparatively safer ones to licensed medical professionals like it is done in the United States,’’ he said.
The NAFDAC spokesperson Okonkwo agreed that the battle to stop the use and production of bleaching creams was a tough one. However, he sought the public’s help.
“This fight against bleaching creams is one that we cannot fight alone. We need the public to join in the fight. Anybody with useful information about any company using the banned ingredients should please report to NAFDAC,” he said.