The search for beauty has led many African women (and increasingly men) to use skin lightening products. Quoting a recent study from the University of Cape Town, BBC News reports that one in three African women use bleaching products to lighten their skin. In addition to the implied sociological ills that the practice implies, bleaching products often create significant medical complications. Dermatologists see many patients suffering from diseases caused by a combination of use of the lightening products and sunlight, which is plentiful in Africa.

omasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi

South African musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi is the poster child for skin lightening. PHOTO: DRUM MAGAZINE

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of the dangers of some skin lightening products. Those that contain mercury (a common ingredient in lightening creams) have harmful effects – and can even lead to kidney damage. Other side effects can include “skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections.”

Is White the New Black?

“I just want to be light skinned,” says South African musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi. The celebrity is a poster child for skin lightening and has been public about her extensive use of the products. She was interviewed by the BBC alongside her own black child who provides a striking visual contrast. She says it’s not about being black or white, “I want to see the other side.”

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

She’s not alone. In South Africa, 35% of women use skin lightening products on a regular basis, according to WHO. In Mali and Senegal it’s 25% and 27% respectively. In Nigeria, it’s reportedly as high as 77%. In a video posted online on skin bleaching in Nigeria, cameras take you inside local markets, showing some of the different skin lightening products available – there’s creams, pills and even injections!

The Africans we know are not concerned with skin color. Do you know Africans who use skin bleaching products? What do you think drives this type of behavior?