Skin whitening is a billion dollar industry in predominantly black countries, but some governments want it to change.
Rwanda is one of them. Highlighting the harmful effects of chemicals on health, the country launched a crackdown to ban bleaches, especially hydroquinone and mercury, found in cosmetics.
"We are conducting cosmetic inspections to make sure they contain no hydroquinone or mercury," said Simeon Kwizera, spokesperson for the Rwanda Standards Board, during a telephone interview Wednesday. "We seize cosmetics, inspect stores and markets, and advise sellers."
In Rwanda and in other countries, people use cosmetics to whiten their skin, believing that a lighter skin is ideal or indicates a higher social status. Dark-skinned people do not necessarily see them in billboards, movies, and commercials, and dark-skinned celebrities sometimes gain popularity after blanching their skin. This makes it easier to believe that a darker skin has less value or is not considered as beautiful.
The skin bleaching industry is fueled not only by African countries, but also by countries such as India, China, South Korea and many Caribbean countries.
According to the World Health Organization, 61% of the dermatological market in India consists of skin lightening products. In Nigeria, 77% of women regularly use lightening products, and in South Africa, 59% do so, said the health agency.
The use of these products often requires exposure to hydroquinone and mercury, the main ingredients of most skin-lightening products, which disrupt or suppress melanin production, said Dr. Carlos Charles, dermatologist and founder of Derma di Colore, a New York practice.
Of the two, mercury is more dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, it can also cause kidney damage, as well as rashes, scars, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy, as well as reduce the resistance of the body. skin with bacterial and fungal infections.
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With regard to hydroquinone, "you may experience problems if you use it at very high concentration," Dr. Charles said. "It can cause a rash. More importantly, if you use it at a high concentration for a long time, it can cause ochronosis, which can cause a paradoxical darkening of the skin. "
Some countries have totally banned skin whitening creams or the use of mercury and hydroquinone.
In 1983, South Africa banned all hydroquinone creams, with the exception of 2%. In 2015, Cote d 'Ivoire banned all skin whitening creams and, in 2016, Ghana has started banning certain skin whitening products, including hydroquinone. Rwanda instituted its ban in 2013, but did not strictly enforce it until November, when the crackdown began.
To circumvent these bans, some cosmetics manufacturers, seeking profit opportunities, are changing the names of agents to sell their products, according to Kwizera.
"Some manufacturers mislead customers," he said, including creating many fake brands. "They forged more than 80 names just to change their name."
Mr Kwizera said he believed that products containing hydroquinone were mainly smuggled into Rwanda.
The country's president, Paul Kagame, approved the crackdown on Twitter, calling the bleaching of the skin unhealthy.