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Dying to be white

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

On the most important day of Carol’s life-her wedding- the 27-year-old hairdresser says she felt beautiful. During the last two months of preparation, carol used skin bleaching products in anticipation of this day. At the ceremony, her complexion, which she normally describes as coffee-colored was a creamy café au lait. As hundreds gathered outdoors, carol stayed in the shed to protect her lightened skin from the sun.
“When I did step out to have my picture taken, my skin was so sensitive it felt as if I was being scorched with an iron,” she says.
Wedding ceremonies are just one of the occasions for which most women lighten their skin, knowingly risking cancer in the process. The practice is also common before festive holidays, when women have higher chances of travelling to their villages to their villages and meeting friends and relatives that they haven’t seen in a long time.

Some women don’t wait for special occasions; they use bleaching products every day.
In societies such as Uganda, where dark skin is a marker of toiling in the sun, lighter skin signifies affluence.
Nasaali Liz, a professor, believe that is a legacy of the colonial days, when European rulers,by their very existence, established a link between power, affluence and light complexions. Europeans are also said to have showed favoritism to paler Africans. Before chemical skin bleaching first arrived in Uganda in the eighties, it was a question of staying out of the sun and not using very-effective herbal masks. But with the addition of bleach, these creams have become more potent and the practice increasingly widespread.

But worryingly, most ingredients are known for affecting the production of melanin (the pigment that protects the skin against skin cancer). In a nation where nearly half the population is unemployed, women spend shs 50,000 or more each month on skin bleaching products. Dozens of brands are on sale at markets for at least shs 8,000 a tube.

More than half the women who visit a dermatology clinic in Wandegeya are there because they have some kind of skin lightening side effect. Dr Kambugu, who runs the clinic, says it’s no surprise the problem of skin lightening has transcended social and class boundaries,”If you look at the international role models- actresses, musicians, models- they actually have lighter skin. Women want fair complexions because they see it on television.”
A 36-year-old political journalist whom one would expect to scorn the practice is a self-confessed ‘addict’. “Skin lightening is very important to us, it makes us feel beautiful. Yes, there are health risks, but we do it anyway, it is completely normal.”

Jackie, a 26-year-old nurse, didn’t think twice about it. “I started using the creams when I was 22,” she says. “I used two different products everyday for two years,”
She eventually had to stop using them, however, because the heightened sensitivity she experienced whenever her skin was exposed to the sun went off the register. “It destroyed my complexion. My skin also hardened like swollen acne,”
What’s more, her skin is actually darker now than it was before she started using the lightening creams.
Dr. Kambugu explains that this overall darkening of the complexion after people stop using lightening products is quite common. “This is due to the fact that the creams alter natural pigmentation.” He continues, “Women come to me for help but there is nothing I can do for them. They know the risk.


Skin lightening creams have been a popular cosmetic product in South Africa for many decades and are still widely used for its skin bleaching effects. Also known as skin whitening creams, these applications are available from street vendors and cosmetic counters at chain stores, supermarkets and pharmacies across the country. However a lack of regulation has allowed some skin whitening blends to impregnate toxic compounds in their formulation, leading to a number of skin disorders when used over a long period of time. While the public is aware of the dangers of these skin products, sales of skin lightening creams continue to dominate the cosmetic market.

Skin lightening products are popular in Africa and Asia where a lighter skin complexion is prized among many cultures. The price for beauty has often seen many dangerous products emerge on the market only to be quickly removed through the swift action of local health authorities. However skin lightening products have not fallen prey to regulation and new brands emerge on a daily basis.