Skin bleaching in Africa: What you should know

Skin bleaching in Africa_promo image


By: Victoria Iyeduala (Freelance Health and Wellness Writer and DLHA Volunteer)

With Editorial contribution by The DLHA Team



Skin bleaching is common in Africa, especially among African women. According to a 2011 report from WHO, 40% of African women bleach their skin. 77% of Nigerian women, 9% of Togolese women, 35% of South African women, 27% of Senegalese women and 25% of Malian women practice it.

Statistics show that the skin bleaching products market is thriving in Africa.

This article is going to talk about

  • What skin bleaching is, and common ways Africans practice it
  • How skin bleaching products work
  • Reasons African people practice skin bleaching
  • Side effects and benefits of skin bleaching
  • How you can stop using skin bleachers
  • Two ways to reduce the practice in Africa



What is skin bleaching?

Skin bleaching is the act of lightening your skin. It is also referred to as skin lightening, skin whitening, skin brightening or skin evening.


People use creams, soaps, lotions and pills, and professional skin lightening cosmetic procedures such as chemical peels and laser therapy to lighten their skin.


Some do this to lighten dark areas of their skin – even out their skin tone – while others practice it continuously to lighten their overall skin colour. This continuous practice of lightening your overall skin tone is mainly referred to as skin bleaching.



Common ways Africans bleach their skin

Africans use different methods to bleach their skin.


The use of skin lightening products such as creams, ointments, soaps, lotions, serums, pills or injections are the most common.

Hand hollding a jar of skin bleaching cream

Hand holding a jar of skin bleaching ointment.

Credit: Photo by from Pexels


Professional cosmetic treatments such as deep chemical peels and laser treatments are not popular in Africa.


Skin whitening products contain hydroquinone, mercury, and corticosteroids. In high quantities, which is usually the case in over-the-counter (OTC) products, these chemicals harm your body.


Dermatologists prescribe skin lightening products to patients with hyperpigmentation, such as dark spots from acne, melasma and wound scars.


Africans also use natural skin lightening creams, soaps and body oils, which are believed to be safer alternatives to synthetic products – no evidence yet.



How do skin bleaching products work?

Skin bleaching products act by reducing the production of melanin in your skin. Melanin, a colour pigment, gives your skin, eyes and hair their colour.


Dark-skinned people produce more melanin than light-skinned people. The more melanin you produce, the darker your colour.


Skin lightening products reduce melanin production by destroying or reducing melanocytes – the cells that make melanin – or inhibiting the production of melanin in your skin. If your skin produces less melanin, it becomes lighter.


Melanin also protects your skin from harmful UV rays from the sun. Since you have to continue using these products for them to have lasting effects, the products continuously destroy melanocytes or suppress melanin production for you to always have light skin.



Why do Africans bleach their skin?

People bleach their skin for many different reasons, such as evening out their skin tone, to gain confidence or attract a partner.


Some significant triggers of skin bleaching are explained below.


To remove dark spots

Some Africans bleach their skin to even out their skin tone by clearing up dark spots caused by melasma, acne, pimples, freckles, wounds and chicken Pox.


According to research, 67% of South Africans who use skin lightening creams use them to treat hyperpigmentation and acne.


Hyperpigmentation which causes dark spots or darker areas of the skin, can be treated with a prescription of skin lightening products from a dermatologist. Your dermatologist can also recommend professional cosmetic procedures – chemical peels and laser therapy – to treat severe cases.


Some people use nonprescription products to self-medicate.


To attract or please a partner

Some people bleach their skin to attract partners. They believe that they are more attractive with fairer skin.


People also lighten their skin to please their partners and look more attractive to them. They know that their partners prefer lighter skin. Their partners may even be the ones requesting or pressuring them to bleach their skin.

Black woman testing skin cream on the skin of her right arm

Black woman testing skin bleaching cream on her right arm:


This behaviour is based on the phenomenon or stereotype called “colourism” that implies that light-skinned people are more attractive.


To attract customers

Cosmetic product sellers usually use themselves as proof of the effectiveness of their products. They may only use these products to attract people who want light skin to patronise them. 


Peer pressure and family influence

It's common for people to copy others or do what everybody is doing. Some people, especially adolescents, may be lightening their skin because their peers are doing it or encouraging them to.


Adolescents or teenagers can pick the habit from their relatives who practice it. Their relatives could also encourage them to bleach their skin.



Colourism is the idea that light skin is better than dark skin. In colourism, people prefer light-skinned people to dark skin people.


These people attribute positive characteristics or behaviours to light-skinned people and negative ones to dark-skinned people. Positive characteristics like intelligence, cleanliness, beauty, high class and wealth are examples.


It happens in workplaces and schools, where people would rather associate with light-skinned people than dark-skinned people and higher positions are given to light-skinned people.


People who have experienced colourism or are victims of colourism may indulge in skin bleaching to have the light skin that people prefer and the status or privileges that come with it.


Psychological and mental health issues

Some people lighten their skin to feel more beautiful or more confident. Others may practice excessive skin bleaching because they believe their skin tone is a flaw or defect.


When people experience colourism, are bullied because of their skin colour or have a dark spot or two, they may believe their complexion is a "flaw". This could be a sign of a mental health disorder.



Is skin bleaching dangerous?

Skin bleaching or skin lightening has many harmful effects, which could be mild or severe. Some may cause lethal or long-term damage to your body.


Here are some complications that result from the long-term use of skin lightening products containing toxic chemicals.


Skin conditions

Chemicals in skin whitening products can have adverse effects on your skin. You may develop skin conditions that cause skin irritation, rashes and discolouration. Some common skin conditions are acne, eczema, exogenous ochronosis and contact dermatitis.



Continuous use of skin bleaching products containing corticosteroids for a long time can trigger steroid acne. Common symptoms of acne are pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, nodules and papules.



Chemicals in bleaching products may irritate your skin and cause dermatitis – skin conditions that cause inflammation.


Eczema and contact dermatitis are common skin conditions caused by chemicals in skin lightening products.


Some symptoms of eczema are:

  • dry, itchy skin
  • rashes
  • crusty skin
  • discoloured patches of skin


Contact dermatitis causes include:

  • red, painful, itchy rashes
  • dry, flaky skin
  • blisters
  • dark, thick patches on the skin


Exogenous ochronosis

Prolonged use of skin bleaching products containing hydroquinone can cause exogenous ochronosis (EO). EO makes your skin have a blue-black or greyish-brown colour and small caviar-like bumps.


Skin cancer

Skin bleaching increases your risk of getting skin cancer. Harmful UV rays can cause skin cancer.


Melanin protects your skin from harmful UV rays from the sun. When you use Skin whitening products, you reduce your skin's protection from the sun as they reduce melanin production.


Thinning skin

Skin bleaching products containing corticosteroids can cause thinning skin. Thin skin breaks or tears easily.


It can result in complications such as;

  • slow wound healing
  • breaking sutures or stitches pulling through wounds
  • infections on wounds
  • wrinkles
  • looking older than your age


Kidney Damage

Using skin bleaching products continuously for a long time can cause kidney problems. It increases your risk of kidney cancer. High quantities of skin lightening chemicals cause toxicity in the kidneys. These cause kidney damage.


Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney condition where the kidneys cannot filter waste or urine and leave too much protein in the urine. It is a sign of kidney damage.


The symptoms are;

  • swelling of the face, legs, arms and belly
  • foamy urine
  • skin rashes or sores
  • seizures
  • weight gain
  • loss of appetite


Nerve damage

Long-term use of skin lightening products containing mercury and hydroquinone can cause nerve damage.


Symptoms are;

  • numbness in hands or feet
  • tingling feeling in your hands or feet
  • losing you balance
  • over sweating
  • muscle weakness
  • burning pain
  • indigestion


Liver damage

Excessive use of skin bleaching products can lead to liver damage. Chemicals in these products cause toxicity to the liver and increase your risk of liver cancer and liver damage.


Some signs of liver damage are:

  • jaundice – yellowish colour of the skin and eyes
  • swollen legs and arms
  • dark urine colour
  • abdominal pain and swelling
  • nausea or vomiting
  • bruising easily
  • weakness
  • pale stool


Mercury poisoning

Mercury is a metal that is deadly to the body. Mercury poisoning causes heart problems, kidney and liver damage, and nervous system breakdown.


Using mercury-containing skin lightening products for a long time can cause mercury poisoning.


Signs of mercury poisoning are

  • numbness in certain parts of your body
  • lack of coordination
  • blurry vision
  • tremors
  • seizures
  • memory loss
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • skin rashes


Pregnancy complications and congenital disabilities

Reports indicate that some pregnant women take pills, some identified as glutathione pills, to lighten their unborn babies' skins. Medical professionals say that these pills are dangerous to unborn babies.


Pregnant women who take these pills may have abortions or stillbirths. Newborns may have deformed limbs, brain damage, or sight and hearing defects.


Fish odour syndrome

According to a 2008 study, you can develop fish odour syndrome if you use skin bleaching products for a long time. This condition can cause your breath, sweat, urine and vaginal fluids to smell like rotting fish.


Adrenal suppression

Adrenal susppresion refers to the reduction in the production of cortisol, a hormone essential to almost every system in the body.


Cortisol performs many vital functions in the body, including regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, your body's response to stress and the use of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.


Insufficient production of cortisol causes

  • low blood pressure
  • fatigue
  • weight loss
  • appetite loss
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • muscle and joint pain
  • shock (circulatory collapse)


Side effects of cosmetic procedures

Cosmetic procedures such as deep chemical peels and laser skin tightening are more accessible to the rich because they're expensive.


Chemical peels use an acid called phenol. When done wrong or done by a non-professional, the acid can cause heart, kidney and liver damage, and skin infection.



Does skin bleaching have benefits?

Although skin bleaching is common, no research has associated it with a health benefit.


Lightening your skin does not have any health benefits, but it may have some cosmetic benefits. It lightens dark spots and scars, evening out your skin tone.


Usually, you can only get these benefits when treatment is done by a professional or when you use prescribed products and the dermatologist monitors the process.



Is skin bleaching illegal in Africa?

In most countries, including some African countries, over-the-counter skincare products containing dangerous ingredients such as mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids have been banned. You can only use them under a prescription from a dermatologist to treat certain skin conditions.


These chemicals are usually present in harmful concentrations in skin lightening products. At such high concentrations, continually using these products endangers your health.


Some of the African countries that have banned the sale of over-the-counter skin bleaching products include:

  • South Africa       
  • Rwanda                                                        
  • Ghana
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal                              
  • Tanzania
  • Kenya
  • Uganda
  • Ivory Coast
  • Cameroon


Regardless of these bans, skin bleaching products containing these chemicals are still available in these countries. People buy them in the black market or online. Skin bleaching is still a common practice in these countries.



How can you stop skin bleaching?

To stop the practice of skin bleaching, you need to identify the reason you're lightening your skin and consider if it's worth the long-lasting complications.


Dermatologists don't advise lightening your skin with over-the-counter products or products bought on the black market. If you have a skin condition, see a dermatologist rather than self-medicate.


Some of the ways you can stop or avoid skin bleaching are

  • Always check the ingredients of any skincare product you're buying for hydroquinone, mercury or corticosteroids.


  • You should stop using the product if you're already bleaching your skin. See a dermatologist to help you plan ways to refresh and rejuvenate your skin and avoid or reduce complications.


  • Watch or listen to shows and read books that help boost your confidence as a dark-skinned person instead of shows that promote lighter skin as the standard of beauty.


  • See a therapist if you have the compulsion to bleach your skin because you hate your complexion or believe it is a flaw. Your therapist will help you identify why this is happening and help you overcome this compulsion.



How can skin bleaching be stopped in Africa?

Skin bleaching should be a public health concern.


Public awareness and proper regulation of skincare products are two significant ways the practice of skin bleaching in Africa can be stopped or drastically reduced.


Increasing public awareness of skin bleaching, its causes and health effects

People have recently started changing their mindsets about beauty stereotypes and colourism. Colourism and beauty stereotypes have become well-recognised in society, and some people are fighting against notions that promote them.


With the help of social media and some organisations, people have started pushing and condemning these topics. Campaigns like "black is beautiful", "Brown skin is beautiful”, and "brown sugar" and education on the beauty of skin of colour have been pushed by people who are hoping for an end to colourism and beauty stereotypes. Black models also becoming more popular is helping too.


More awareness needs to be created because skin bleaching is still common. People still need to be educated on the beauty of their skin colour and the dangers of skin whitening.


  • Regulatory authorities should continuously voice concerns and warn against colourism and beauty stereotypes in the media.
  • Organisations and public institutions should create campaigns against colourism and beauty stereotypes.
  • Educational institutions should make creating awareness about colourism, beauty stereotypes and skin whitening a priority.
  • Colourism should be discouraged in workplaces.


Proper regulation of skin care products

Although some countries have banned skin bleaching products, they are still sold in the black market and are available to people in these countries.


The appropriate organisations should firmly regulate and constrain the production, importation and sales of cosmetic products to ensure that banned products are not made available to citizens.



Wrapping up

Skin bleaching is a common practice in Africa with many harmful complications. Using creams, soaps, and pills, professional treatments like chemical peels are some ways people bleach their skin. The practice of skin bleaching or skin lightening in Africa has no health benefits whatsoever and should be a public health concern deserving of attention.


You should see a dermatologist for guidance regardless of your reason to lighten your skin tone.




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Related: Is skin bleaching a sign of mental health illness?



Published: February 2, 2023

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