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Skin bleaching in Africa: An 'addiction' with risks

AFP / MATTEO FRASCHINI KOFFI Shopkeeper Ruth Dossouvi applies a skin-lightening cream at her shop in Lome -- paler skin is seen by many Africans as a potential path to success in jobs or the mating game

Skin bleaching in Africa is gaining popularity despite many health risks.

In spite of the danger, people use toxic creams and injections and pills to become more fair, in the belief that lighter skin is a gateway to beauty and success.

AFP / GULSHAN KHAN Sheila Dhulab has a facial with skin lightening products at the Pari Hair Salon in the Fordsburg suburb of Johannesburg

Ingredients may include hydroquinone, steroids, mercury and lead -- the same element that in high concentrations poisoned Elizabethan courtiers who powdered their faces ivory white.

Many governments in Africa have banned the sale of bleaching creams and warned about taking high doses of a lightening compound called glutathione, which is sold as injections or pills.

But demand for the bleaching products far exceeds what authorities can regulate.

In many African capitals there are billboards advertising creams for fair skin, while a legion of black market cosmetologists assemble bootleg creams for sale in markets.

AFP / STEFAN HEUNIS Lagos cosmetics entrepreneur Dabota Lawson warns that skin lightening can become addictive: "Just like with plastic surgery, it begins to feel like it's never enough." 

People who start skin bleaching caution that the results are "addictive" and that they quickly become dependent on the creams to feel beautiful.

They can end up spending hundreds of dollars every month in order to keep a fair complexion, even as it damages their skin.

AFP / CRISTINA ALDEHUELA Risk: Edmund Delle, a dermatologist at the Rabito Clinic in Accra, holds up a picture of a woman with ochronosis -- discoloration caused by long-term application of hydroquinone to lighten the skin

Side effects include sensitive skin that becomes uneven in tone, stretch marks, and in the worst cases, ochronosis -- a build-ups of acid that makes the skin appear darker.

Black cultural movements are trying to challenge longstanding Eurocentric standards of beauty by celebrating natural skin and hair.

But it's not clear yet if the trend will shift public opinion in Africa, where fair skin is still held at a premium.

AFP / CRISTINA ALDEHUELA Contrasting messages: on Spintex Road in Accra, one billboard advertises skin-lightening lotions and soaps...

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