Skin lightening & colourism – A post-colonial legacy?


Skincare is a rapidly growing market worldwide. In Africa, the beauty and personal care industry is expected to grow to USD 6.20 billion between the years of 2018-2022. In particular, small salons that specialise in selling beauty products and braiding hair are increasingly frequented by women who include them in their monthly and daily personal care routines. Across the continent, these salons are hubs for social activity, gossip, and the exchanging of beauty tips. Among the scalp oils and hair extensions, skin lightening products have also increased in availability and use.


Skin toning, skin lightening and skin brightening, are all euphemisms for skin bleaching—a practice that has grown in popularity, especially among young women and teenagers. Nigeria is considered the largest African consumer of skin lightening products. According to the World Health Organisation, 77% of Nigerian women consume skin bleaching creams regularly. In South Africa, this statistic is 35%. While there is no official documented period as to when the practice of skin lightening began in Africa, there are a combination of factors that are believed to have perpetuated it. Many historians and sociologists believe that the use of these creams began when African countries gained independence as a part of a post-colonial legacy. It indicates a psychological hold that continues to mentally subjugate African peoples and their diaspora.

In South Africa, this is linked to apartheid. The system of apartheid reinforced the idea that whiter skin and other European characteristics were more ‘pure’ and beautiful. As a result, individuals with lighter skin were socio-economically advantaged. National politics of race and modern day colourism (the prejudice of individuals with darker skin and the advantaging of lighter skin) are further reasons.


In our modern era, the media has also played an important role in crafting beauty standards in African countries. When African countries gained independence, the use of skin lightening products increased. This is due to the creation of new social hierarchies and the availability of new methods of identity expression. Most importantly, an increased access to global media meant that Western ideals of beauty were imported into the continent. Black celebrities in North America and Europe, who are also affected by ideas of white beauty standards, are seen as beauty icons within African nations. The widespread use of social media connects ideas of beauty with success.


Beyond psychological consequences, skin lightening presents severe physical repercussions. Skin lightening creams are sometimes prescribed by doctors to treat hyperpigmentation in skin. The mainstream access to bleaching creams is unregulated and can result in a dangerous over-application of the product. At times, customers may mix the products to receive a greater and faster result, however, this only causes more harmful damage. With toxic ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone, skin cancer, kidney damage, steroid induced acne and atrophy are a few of the physical consequences that can result.

Several African governments have made attempts to regulate skin lightening products. Rwanda and Ghana have completely banned their use. There is recognition that a greater public knowledge of the dangers of these products is needed to effectively reduce their use and abuse.


Related Post:  Beauty and Colourism



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