A legacy of the colonial mindset, the market for skin-lightening products is booming in Ghana, with even some international conglomerates pushing bleaching creams. But the side effects can be deadly.
If Regina Nettey wants to treat herself after showering, she opens the little refrigerator in her room. That’s where she keeps the cream. “I like it when it’s cold,” says Nettey. “I put it everywhere on my body. It is my luxury.” At the moment, the 22-year-old doesn’t have a job — or her own shower. She lives in a western suburb of Accra, the capital of Ghana, in a neighborhood with unpaved roads, where inhabitants share narrow huts and few sanitation facilities.
It’s not just the cold temperature of the cream in the West African heat that Nettey likes. It’s the product’s promise, the prospect of a better life. The cream — whose packaging says, “White Secret” — contains a bleaching agent that lightens the skin.
For five years now, Regina Nettey has been buying the cream at the market for the equivalent of 3 euros ($3.37). Sometimes she skips several meals to save up enough money to buy it. Occasionally, someone will ask her why she’s even using it.
When that happens, Nettey answers that “it’s totally normal.” She argues that “men love light skin,” even though she’s not just using the cream because of them.
The women from her neighborhood also use bleaching products, and she says they immediately notice when someone else is “beautifully light.” She also argues that employers prefer to hire women who look “special and light.” Nettey twirls locks of her pink-dyed hair around her index finger, as she holds her cell phone in her other hand. “It is annoying when people say I should stop. Everyone else is bleaching too.”
Since George Floyd, an African American, died while being violently arrested by a white police officer in Minnesota, protests against racism and police brutality have erupted around the world. Prejudices against black people are often deeply rooted — even in Africa. This is tragically reflected in the fact that millions of people on the continent yearn to have lighter skin.
Last year, Ghana celebrated the “year of return,” a marketing campaign by the tourism authority that aimed to bring Ghana’s diaspora back to the country, 400 years after the first slave ships from Africa landed in the United States. The event included excursions to the Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, two of the approximately 30 forts along the Ghanaian coast from which the Dutch and the British shipped tens of thousands of slaves to the European colonies in North and South America. There were African music festivals, discussion series and film nights. The event aimed to instil pride in people of their origins, of the continent, and of their black skin. About a million visitors came. The year of return was a success.
But the colonial powers’ racist legacy, and the devaluing of people with black skin, is still deeply rooted in everyday life, even in a country like Ghana. The country, which has been independent since 1957, has an overwhelmingly black population.
Light skin is often equated with beauty, purity and prosperity. So-called “bleaching,” a skin-lightening process, has become a billion-dollar industry. People use creams and lotions to obtain a lighter skin color in many countries around the world, but they are especially popular in India, China, Africa and in some Caribbean countries. This is especially true in Nigeria and Ghana, with some studies estimating that 40 to 77 percent of these countries’ populations use such products. This corresponds to millions of women and men.
Some pregnant women take tablets in the hopes that it will lead their child to be born with fair skin. Some apply bleaching lotion, like the one Regina Nettey uses, to their babies, in the hopes that it will improve their child’s chances.
Despite all of the campaigns and individuals warning people against the products, which are often harmful, and proclaiming that “black is beautiful,” sales figures are rising. Manufacturers around the world have discovered that they can sell their lotions, tinctures, tablets and injections in West Africa. The products are also sold on Instagram.
That is how beauty entrepreneur Farcadi, whose real name is Enyonam Patience Gbekle, has became famous in Ghana. The 25-year-old generally sells creams, peelings and soaps by direct mail order. She claims the products have also drastically lightened her own skin. She lives about an hour from Regina Nettey, in a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city.
“Light skin gives self-confidence and attracts the attraction of others,” Enyonam says. She twice interrupts the half-hour interview in a trendy café to pose for photos that her assistant is meant to post on Instagram. “But light skin mostly means money. When you are light-skinned, you get better jobs, earn more, receive invitations.”
Bleaching products can actually lighten a person’s skin, but also make them seriously ill. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified bleaching as an acute threat to people’s health. According to dermatologists and health groups, ingredients like hydroquinone — a phenol that inhibits the production of melanin, the brown protective pigment in the skin — sometimes causes serious illness. Consequences can include liver and kidney damage, blindness and deformities in newborn babies. One of the greatest risks is skin cancer, especially in areas near the equator, which have high levels of solar radiation.
Every day, dermatologist Edmund Delle sees several patients with severe skin damage from bleaching beauty products. “Light is beautiful. Black is like dirt and needs to be bleached! These are horrible thoughts that the colonial powers have given us,” says Delle. “Not only are these assumptions untrue, they’re killing our people.”
Edmund Delle is 77 years old and has been a doctor since the 1970s. The consultation hours at the Rabito Clinic in Accra, which he founded, are booked up for months. The waiting room is decorated with his medical certificates and prizes. He was one of the first dermatologists in Africa to warn against skin-lightening and for years he has been holding speeches about its risks, visiting schools and educating colleagues.
Out of shame, patients often hide the fact that they’ve been using bleaching products. But Delle recognizes it immediately. Often, they only have enough money to lighten their hands and faces. Those who use the products all over their bodies often still have darker knuckles and elbows. Others get stretch marks or extreme wrinkles. “It looks like elephant skin,” he says.
“We don’t need bans, we need education. Nobody should buy these products anymore”
Delle invites his next patient into the treatment room. He greets the 55-year-old woman, gets up quickly, immediately pushes her head slightly forward and examines the damaged skin on her neck, shoulders and arms, which are covered with thousands of wrinkles. He also notices a fungal infection on her back. Bleaching destroys the protective layer of the skin, allowing bacteria and fungi to settle in it. “This also leads to an intense and terrible smell, like rotten fish,” Delle says. He takes a few notes, shaking his head slightly.
“I never stopped fighting bleaching,” says Edmund Delle. “Sometimes it feels hopeless. Six out of 10 people do it. We don’t need bans, we need education. Nobody should buy these products anymore.”
In 2016, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), the authority tasked with monitoring cosmetics, has banned hydroquinone and other ingredients, including mercury and some steroids. They may now no longer be used in de-pigmenting cosmetics, but that doesn’t mean these kinds of skin-lightening products — or other similar items — have become unavailable. The price for a product can go up to approximately 250 euros.
Natural Fairness, a Nivea body lotion for “lighter skin” can be found in supermarkets. Drug stores sell Beauty Active cream for “lightening.” In beauty salons, people can buy tinctures, foams and peelings. Many markets offer countless bleaching products at low prices.
Emmanuel Nkrumah, 47, the head of the FDA’s cosmetics division, says, “There is no such thing as a non-dangerous skin-lightening product.” He believes there are hundreds of bleaching products in circulation. He explains that some contain substances that have not yet been banned, and that some don’t list all of their ingredients on the packaging. Some, he argues, are registered as a healing medication, and are hard to ban. He is also worried about the increasing number of products from large, international conglomerates.
“Until a few years ago, for example, Nivea didn’t have a lightning cream,” Nkrumah says at his desk in the FDA central office. “The reason why there is a Nivea cream now: money. That’s why. The market is immense, everyone wants a part of it.” The product, which is made by Beiersdorf, a German company, was advertised in Ghana in October 2017 with a light-skinned model, causing outrage on social networks. This came shortly after a “white is purity” ad from Nivea was decried as being extremely insensitive. But since then, little has changed.
“The desire for lighter skin runs deep. As long as many people feel that way and buy these products, they will continue to exist”
There is a pile of folders in front of Nkrumah. They are filled with documents about bleaching products currently being investigated by authorities. A special police mission, he explains, will soon arrest a dealer ring that sells bleaching products to children. In 2019, the FDA implemented more education campaigns to inform people about the dangers of skin whitening than ever before.
“But the desire for lighter skin runs deep. As long as many people feel that way and buy these products, they will continue to exist,” he says. “It’s frustrating.”
On the other side of the city, Samuel Akufo gets into his car. Every year, the 31-year-old runs 30 to 40 advertising campaigns for international companies. Akufa can’t drive past any of the building-size billboards lining Accra’s main streets without getting upset about the incomprehensible designs and silly photos.
While driving, he explains what his clients want. “Most of them don’t say that they’d prefer to have a light-skinned person in their advertisement,” says Akufo. “But they don’t need to. About 80 percent of the models have very fair skin now anyways. People with dark skin usually don’t even dare go to an audition.”
That could cause problems with some companies. He explains that early this year, for example, a European company complained that a group photo for an ad in West Africa, of all places, showed only fair-skinned people. “They wanted more diversity,” Akufo says. It took him some time to find suitable models.