Dettol cream is toxic

Creams for whitening : In the Name of Beauty - How Africa's Women Risk Their Health

Anu Julius bought the first cream for whitening her skin at her sister's behest. She had suggested to her to do something about her dark skin color. Just four weeks later, Julius' arms and legs began to itch, the skin on his face tightened. “My skin can no longer tolerate the sun. It's on fire, ”says the 29-year-old. “When I go out, I have to use an umbrella,” reports the hairdresser in her salon in the Nigerian economic metropolis of Lagos. Nevertheless, she is satisfied with the result. "My skin looks smooth and beautiful, and my boyfriend likes it," she insists despite the clear warning signs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), three out of four women in Nigeria use over-the-counter products to whiten their skin. This is despite the fact that the cheap creams can have serious side effects. In Togo, too, 59 percent of women regularly use such agents, in South Africa every third and in Mali, according to WHO, every fourth. Most of the creams available in Africa contain prohibited and highly toxic ingredients such as mercury, hydroquinone and steroids, which can cause hyperpigmentation, severe irreparable skin damage and, in the worst case, even cancer, warns the WHO.

The South African dermatologist Nonhlanhla Khumalo wanted to do something. She had noticed that more and more of her patients are struggling with the consequences after years of using such agents. Khumalo campaigned for a laboratory at the University of Cape Town that specializes in researching toxic ingredients in skin care products. The facility opened its doors in May. Since then, the dermatologist has tested 29 bleaches from Cape Town shops. Result: Almost all of them contain prohibited ingredients - often in large quantities. “In the beginning, the products make the skin look lighter, which increases the incentive for buyers,” explains Khumalo. "But then the first side effects soon appear and the damage is usually irreparable."

White, White Express, Extreme Glo, Fair and White

Even at Cape Town's train station, just a few kilometers from the laboratory, numerous small shops offer a wide range of the questionable products. They have names such as Fair and White, White Express, Extreme Glo, Fair and White, White Express, Extreme Glo, Carowhite, Black & WhiteCarowhite, Black & White, Dynamiclair and Skinlight. A 75 milliliter bottle is available for the equivalent of 2.30 euros. Shop owner Giselle Madioko has placed the various containers, bottles and tubes so that they are clearly visible. The creams come from Ivory Coast, Cameroon and the Congo, but also from India. "Skin bleaches are my biggest business," says Madioko. She has been using the creams herself for ten years and has never experienced any side effects, she claims. “Nothing will happen to you with my creams.” But if you take a closer look, your complexion looks rather pale and speckled with lots of small dark spots - a characteristic of hyperpigmentation.

It is not uncommon for the poisonous ingredients to be clearly visible on the packaging, but this does not seem to deter customers. The ideal of beauty, according to which a lighter shade of brown is supposedly more beautiful, is so strong that many African women simply ignore the warnings. Magazines and advertising also contributed to this. They make celebrities' skin lighter on the computer, adding more pressure to women. In addition, a number of African stars help bleach the skin. The singer Nomasonto Maswanganyi, known in her South African homeland as "Mshoza", caused an uproar in 2011. She medically lightened her skin by a few shades and announced that she now feels more beautiful and self-confident. Bleaching your skin is a personal choice, as is breast augmentation or a nose job, Mshoza argued.

When the Nigerian-Cameroonian musician Dencia launched her own line of cosmetic products for skin bleaching called "Whitenicious" last year, customers literally tore the product out of her hands. "Whitening your skin is a real statement here, as are hair extensions and well-groomed clothes," says Bintou Dembele, who works in the textile industry in the Malian capital Bamako. She also used bleach in the run-up to her wedding last year, says the 33-year-old. “That's just part of getting married here. My skin burned and in the end I had to stop because I got a rash, ”she recalls. Using bleaching creams is comparable to smoking, says Dembele. You know about the risks and still do it. "You just assume that someone else will be affected, just not yourself." She doesn't believe that this attitude will change anytime soon: "If the creams were banned, the outrage would be huge." (dpa)

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