Guardian Africa Network
Guardian Africa Network

Enough with the skin whitening

By Afua Hirsch

It is a familiar formula for persuading women to buy a new beauty product: plaster billboards of a beautiful model in the capital city, accompanied by a catchy slogan written in the language of the ordinary woman.

But when new adverts for skin cream Khess Petch – a skin-lightening cream whose name means “all white” – appeared in Senegal, they had the exact opposite effect. The ads, which boasts extreme skin-whitening after 15 days, complete with dramatic before and after shots, provoked mass public outrage and calls for the government to introduce an industry-wide ban.

“We are used to seeing adverts for skin-lightening, but when we first saw these adverts for Khess Petch we were really scandalised. We decided to act,” said Aisha Deme, manager of an online events website in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

“Society is constantly telling us that fair-skinned women are beautiful – in the media, on TV – and Senegalese women have started to believe it,” Deme added. “So we want to show that dark-skinned women are really beautiful, and that natural black skin should be celebrated.”

Deme is co-ordinating a campaign called Ñuul Kukk – which means “pitch black” in local language Wolof – and has attracted thousands of supporters on Facebook and high-profile friends, including the actor Awa Sene Sarr and rapper Awadi.

Senegal’s health minister, Eva Marie Coll Seck, has also met the group and expressed her “outrage” about the adverts.

Dr Fatou Fall, a dermatologist from the institute of social hygiene in Dakar, said: “Skin complexion matters. [Many women believe that] women with fair skin are more successful, women with fair skin are the ones who stand out.”

Dermatologists say that many of the products include steroids such as clobetasol propionate, a cream that should be used for the treatment of severe skin inflammation and prescribed by health professionals, and hydroquinone, a potentially carcinogenic chemical that limits melanin production in the skin, and is banned in the EU.

Although Senegalese law includes controls over the creams, including a ban on creams with more than 2% corticosteroid, the laws are poorly enforced, with products with much higher levels freely available in stalls and marketplaces in Dakar.

Critics say that the cost of Khess Petch – at 1 000 CFA francs a tub (about R17) deliberately targets women who are unaware of the risks.

“There are expensive face-lightening creams which are less dangerous, but products like Khess Petch are very cheap and very dangerous – they are deliberately targeted at women in the villages and the poor urban areas,” said Deme. “Even when they discover the side-effects and want to stop using the creams, they find they cannot stop. It’s only when you stop that the skin changes and begins to become completely burned.”

“When women who use these creams stop, they look horrible,” said Fall. “They actually start looking more black, all the side effects manifest at the same time, which they just can’t accept.”

Afua Hirsch is the Guardian’s west Africa correspondent based in Ghana.

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  • Senegal’s democratic leap forward
    • Richard

      If the creams are harmful, they should be stopped. If people are outraged because of people’s aesthetic choices, that is narrow-minded. Should a white person decide to wear black shoe-polish on their face in the belief it makes them more attractive, surely that is their choice? One sees purple hair, dreadlocks, lip-studs, ad infinitum, which generally elicit little response. I can therefore only assume this is to do with racial politics, nothing more.

    • suntosh

      This has little to do with laws of banned substances or aggressive marketing. It’s about social worth. And that cannot be rooted out in a day.

      Read Frantz Fanon and his theories about lactification (attempts to pass for white).

      Hundreds of years of colonialism and indoctrination of “white is good” has created these social habits of buying skin lightening creams and straightening hair or wearing weaves.

      Biko’s struggle continues.

    • Mr. Direct

      I agree with Richard, harmful products should be removed from the market, this is a no brainer.

      But on the asthetic freedom of choice, were these people outraged at hair colouring products? Surely blonde hair has the same social association with beauty, and would surely stand out in a crowd. No – no outrage there?

      What about the sunbed and/or tanning lotions used by white women in the attempt to darken their skin – shock and horror for this? Social outrage that tanned people are more beautiful than pasty white?

      Colour, colour, colour, colour – so tired of associating everything with colour.

      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, now let me go and brush my green hair…

    • Lennon

      I can’t express my disgust at this without incurring the wrath of the moderators.

    • Dave Harris

      Centuries of colonialism and imperialism foisted a power hierarchy in society were based on skin colour which became synonymous with wealth and privilege. Remember indigenous societies never promoted whiteness. In fact in ancient Egypt, India, Mayan culture etc, powerful deities are usually depicted in dark skin tones and almost all religions forbid this kind of discrimination. Christianity on the other hand, peddles the white caucasian image of Jesus even in indigenous cultures!!!. The sickness of this type of white supremacy is a direct result of the last few centuries of colonialism and the dominance of western consumer culture with its emphasis on looks.

      These days however, India’s Bollywood is one of the main culprits of this disgusting practice propagating this fixation on skin colour with its sick practice of of casting leading actors with skin so fair that they don’t even look Indian!!! One of the leading culprits propagating white supremacy is the Bollywood “superstar” Shahrukh Khan who actively promotes skin lightening treatments What’s more sickening, was nomination – “world’s 50 most important people in the world” by Newsweek. What a disgrace to India and all people of colour around the world.

    • valecia

      I think the point that the above commentators are missing is that, that problem has less to do with whether or not the products are dangerous (of course it is a critical factor). Saying that these products should be permitted so long as they are not dangerous is simply not good enough.

      The problem here is that the standard of beauty among African women is too often centered around white/caucasian traits. The point is that Black women should be encouraged to be (literally) comfortable in their own skins.

      The problem is that white is the norm and any other skin colour is seen as a deviation from that. So the closer Black women can get to lighter skin and silky hair etc, the closer to being ‘normal’ the closer they are to being ‘beautiful’ and ‘successful’.

      African traits are not desired precisely because they are so different from white ones. And THAT is the problem. That Black women would resort to for lack of a better word ‘mutilate’ themselves to achieve characteristics of ‘conventional archetypes of beauty’.

      That is wrong. That is why these products need to be abolished from African markets. African women need to perceive African traits as beautiful and not struggle to conform

    • DeeGee

      I agree with Richard. There’s 2 issues at play here – one, a harmful product that is available commercially; two – a person’s choice to do whatever they like with their own bodies (obviously within reason). On the former, it should be abundantly clear to everyone that a product that causes harm should never see the light of day and that government should do everything to protect all of it’s citizens. On the latter, we’ve already seen this discussion: If I want braces to straighten my teeth, that’s my choice. Orange hair. Tattoos. Lighter skin. Wear women’s clothes. All my choice.

    • Colonialism

      I’m also tired of blaming the obsession with fair skin on colonialism. Go study history – far, far back. Lighter (not white) skin has always been prized by so called non- white communities, especially in the middle east and Asia, long before whites came on the scene. One can only assume that is because it was scarcer and more novel than dark skins. In the white community blondes seem to be sought after and not for their lighter skins but the actual hair colour – even when it is clearly out of a bottle. Who knows why ? – they are not lighter skinned than other whites.

      Whites will never be able to fight this issue. It is darker skinned people who are exploiting adreker skinned people and they know exactly what butons to push – rather like the diet pill peddlars who tap into fat people’s insecurities.

    • DeeGee

      Harris. I couldn’t be bothered to check ,but I’m sure yours is a cut-and-paste of one of your posts from the article I referenced in my first post….. Lazy.

    • African Woman

      Skin lightening is a terrible practice – sisters must accept themselves for who they are.

    • Black Like Me

      Just as well there are different shades of skin colour. Without them, Harris would have no reason for that monumental chip on his shoulder – and would have absolutely nothing to say.

    • Ntombi

      I and my sister grew up with negative comments from our immediate family members on the maternal side due to our darker skin tone.
      It made me cross each time they made their comments. So this stereotype thinking is not anywhere far; but unfortunately within our family circles.
      Today they are having problems with cloasma patches and it is our turn to hit back since they now envy our coffee tone.
      This unhealthy habit of comparing appearance ; whether facial or physical , has lifelong effects of discrimination leading to rejection and a lot of other insecurities.
      Unfortunately, by applying such skin lightners they hope to be accepted.

      Dark skinned people should love the beauty in themselves!

    • Mr. Direct

      @valecia #

      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

      Somehow the human race has survived for this long with the diversity that we have, I would guess that has all occured without skin lightening cream as a basis for attraction. Somehow, with or without it, we will survive a lot longer.

      You want to look like Naomi Campbell, feel free. If you want to look like something else, sure, help yourself.

      Maybe it is a guy thing, but I really do not get the whole beauty thing. You make the best of what you have. With all the cosmetic surgery and products available, I guess you have the ability to choose how you look. It just simply does not worry me, I am what I am. Perhaps this is the lesson that society needs to learn, rather than fighting to ban skin creams…..

    • Frederick

      In my country (United States) if you are light skinned and paint your face black you are considered racist. Go figure…

    • Una

      I have had enough of this condescending attitude that African women must be comfortable in their own skin aka Trevor Noah. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Women of all ethnic groups and on both sides of the race divide tend to experiment with different beauty programmes in order to enhance their looks: Skin lightening creams, I agree, are harmful for the skin. However what do we say about sun tanning lotions in order to look darker, the added sets of bums or silicone bums and breasts, collagen injected lips in order to have fuller lips, the list is endless, intended to satisfy beauty stereotypes across the spectrum. We need to rise above pigeon holing people and start accepting individuals with their preferences and refrain from being prescriptive.