How Far Can You Go for a Tone?

09 Mar 2013

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A blind route to a lighter skin

You have only got to visit a nondescript shop in Yaba market and Bank Olemoh Street, Surulere, both in Lagos, to get a sense of how frenzied the search for a lighter skin has become. OMOLOLA ITAYEMI did recently and recounts an interesting tale

Despite the slow pace of Monday mid-afternoon, the constant stream of people (mostly ladies) in the beauty shop seeking different solutions to various skin afflictions, and different sleek automobiles parked outside is a testimony to fact that the attainment of a lighter hue is on the upward swing. While some were comfortable with the attendants on duty, others sought the advice of the owner. But one common thread ran through most of the requests on that day – the desire to change their skin complexion to a lighter one.
Even with tell tale signs of the bleaching scourge: facial discolouration,  burnt cheeks, ageing skin and sprouting of moustache and beard (side effects of hydroquinone and mercury, major components of bleaching creams and portions), the desire to achieve that lighter skin tone still remain.

Upping their ante
Formerly relegated to shop drawers and display tables of pharmacies, corner-side chemists and cosmetics merchants selling in the open-market; sellers of skin lightening products have upped the ante with beauty parlors in upscale areas advertising skin lightening/whitening in a short while.
Short on side-effects these beauty parlours, as some like to be called, promise a lighter, radiant and spot-free complexion for clients at a certain rate. Usually in a more sophisticated environment, far from the grim and dreary corner shops around the neigbourhood, our perception of beauty is taking a twist which some say mocks the rallying cry - black is beautiful!

The environs are trendier, attendants are friendlier, courteous, more professional and product are better packaged. Estimates by Global Industry Analysts say this market for skin tones will be worth over 150 billion naira globally by 2015.

In Nigeria, the skin lightening cream cost anything from N150 a tube to hundreds of naira for a treatment in beauty parlour. From Iya Tega in Yaba market to BISMID at Bank Olemoh Street, Surulere, mixing of different potions of creams can vary in price. Iya Bisola pegs hers at N3,000 a bottle of lightening lotion (bodyglow) whilst Iya Tega’s lotion depends on your desired complexion shade.
A visit the BISMID and getting an oppourtunity to talk with the owner (Iya Bisola) was an eye opener. Speaking in Yoruba, she attempted to clarify the negative perception that trails skin lightening while attending to her clients.

She claims she caters to different needs from clients with acne or skin problems to outright whitening of skin or glowing of complexion. Having spent 12 years in the beauty industry, Iya Bisola says she delved into the business out of her bad experience with bleaching creams in the past. “I had to ask around and found out how I could cure the stretch marks and burns on my skin. I love this job and have a strong passion for it” she said.

According to her, her business module has been successful due to her honesty, use of original lotions and fair charges to all clients irrespective of their backgrounds.
So popular has her products become that they are being counterfeited in the open market, hence the repackaging of such products.

Fairer skin has always carried the myth of beauty, wealth and opulence. Little wonder, Queen Elizabeth 1 of England famously used lead as a skin whitener and the famous female pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, was said to be very fond of whitening milk too.
It has become an increasingly popular practice among African women since the late 1950s. And it is a lucrative business. Tell-tale marks of this trend can be seen on many ageing socialites with their burnt cheeks, scary stretch marks and green varicose veins on display on their feet.

A non-professional touch
The beauty industry is characterised by non-professionals masquerading as professionals. Most of these beauty shops and their personnel are not trained to administer these products. Of course, the brunt is often borne by the user.
Considering this trend comes with hazardous consequences. Many products contain mercury and hydroquinone, which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discolouration and scarring. Excessive use may even cause psychological problems, according to the WHO June 2012 report.

Expensive damage and tell-tale marks
Fifi is CEO Safia Beauty Stores and Spa in Oniru, Lekki, Lagos. To those in this line of business, Fifi’s Egyptian Milk is the latest wonder in town and she advertises on the internet. Her advert reads: “If you are looking to use the popular Egyptian cream that is making all Nigerian female celebrities turn white, FIFI is the answer’. Fifi’s charges are not on the cheap side. She advised I come with N25,000 to N50,000 for first consultation and promised to get me my desired complexion in a month’s time. However Fifi’s claim to giving that desired light complexion was debunked by some clients on the Internet. Tales of harsh chemicals, stretch marks and dark, hard knuckles trailed her advert on an internet blog. She was also accused of being too expensive and charging up to N200,000 for her services.

Celebrity endorsements
In 2011, Beyonce Carter, award-winning singer and performer was accused of lightening her complexion. But she’s not the only celebrity walking that line as Nollywood actresses have also been constantly accused of this transformation too.
But with Beyonce’s mega star rise, marital security and star power husband, did she have to succumb to the pressure of lightening her skin and what kind of example is she laying for the younger generation that look up to her.

Non-disclosure, side effects and denial
A common thread with beauty parlours or shops in this business  is the non-disclosure of contents used especially in the mixed lotions like BodyGlow from BisMiD. All you get is a lotion or potion in the jar with no contents or contra-indication. If a client is allergic to one of the substances used, then he/she is prone to allergic reactions that can range from mild to very harsh.
Iya Bisola is of the opinion that disclosure could be naive in this line of business. ‘’I cannot disclose the contents of the lotion and creams I mix by myself, but the ones imported have ingredients and contents boldly written on them. People are very smart out there. I cannot disclose my contents. Whoever wants to use it is free to use it. I have passed the stage of soliciting for customers, my customers know me. If it’s good for you, you’ll come with somebody else.’’
Asked about the possible side effects, she replied, ‘’I don’t see people with side effects. My potions have been well researched and won’t work against the skin.” Hard to believe, when one of her clients had come in to complain about a bad rash that broke on her face and that she was not getting the desired complexion change she anticipated after purchasing a particular lotion prescribed by her.
She imports from Asia and even when contents and ingredients are displayed on the packs, it is indecipherable because it is written in an Asian language.
Denial is another common thread that runs through both user and service/product provider. The shop owner denies the side effects of these bleaching products and services even when it’s clear to see and the user even when faced with undesired results that emanate from both short-time and long-term use of these products continue to patronize them in their futility.
According to Vivian Oputa, a dermatologist, this has been the craze since the ‘70s and they care little about the long term effects. ‘’I’m constantly amazed at the amount of patients who have suffered hazardous consequences thanks to bleaching and are not ready to stop. Even with such apparent damage, the desire to stop is not there. And children are not spared, I have mothers coming in to ask if I have lightening injections or potions for their minor kids,’’ she revealed.
‘’I attribute it to inferiority complex stemming from colonial mentality.  We need to teach young girls and ladies to accept who they are irrespective of their skin tone, feel great about themselves and not allow other people’s perception of beauty shape them.’’

Accross borders
Oputa continues, “bleaching or lightening as it is called runs across borders but women of colour seem to be affected more. According to a report published by WHO in June 2012, 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59 percent in Togo and 27 percent in Senegal.’’
Worryingly, some women actively seek out products that contain these harmful ingredients, as they are perceived to be more effective. But often those that do contain harmful substances do not list them as ingredients.
‘’Black South African women have been bitten by the bug too. The Indians and Asians as well are very big on this trend where nearly two thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin lightening products,’’ she said. Little wonder, Iya Bisola’s products are imported from there.
‘’The media is not helping matters too as fair-skinned girls are picked over their darker counterparts. For music videos and other top TV jobs, fairer-skinned girls get the upper hand because in truth when you’re fairer, you’re more attractive,’’ she concluded.

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