Mrs. Bilquis Fadahunsi, a mother-care shop owner at the popular Agege market is a true representation of what locals refer to as ‘Coke and Fanta’. People like earn such a title from the colour of their skin – Bilquis has a stark combination of dark and fair skin tones on her body.

As if that were not enough, Biliquis also has some burns on her face which have darkened and shrunk parts of it. Her condition is not as a result of skin infection, but rather that of prolonged application of skin lightening and bleaching products, which she mostly buys from traders in the markets or from illegal beauticians who peddle in the streets of Lagos.

Dr. Paul Orhii, Director General of National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), recognizes that the urge to beautify the skin with cosmetic products did not start today but said the urge is higher and riskier today as many now go for products capable of altering their natural skin tone, thus making Bilquis just one in millions of others with the mindset that being fairer adds to their beauty.

Dr. Orhii said that “for centuries men and women have utilized cosmetics to enhance or alter physical appearance by cleansing, beautifying, and combating external manifestations of aging. In recent times, however, there are demands for greater benefits from cosmetics with greater aesthetic effects, which may now affect the function and structure of certain body parts.”

Defining bleaching, Orhii said: “Skin bleaching is cosmetic treatment to reduce the prominence of skin discolorations and even out the color of the skin.”

According to experts, because of the disapproving connotations attached to the word ‘bleaching’, people have resorted to the use of more acceptable words like ‘toning’ to cover the act. But no matter the word used for it, experts recognize that any thing applied to alter the original nature of the skin could be harmful to the body.

“Some people apply skin lighteners to their entire body to change their complexion, but this can be very risky”, said Orhii.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Nigeria has the world’s highest percentage of people who bleach. 77 percent of women in Nigeria are said to use skin-lightening products, compared to 59 percent in Togo, and 27 percent in Senegal.

Nigerian women are not the only ones with such an obsession, as most men these days have also followed suite, and this is even as some women apply skin-lightening creams on their babies.

When Daily Sun enquired from a woman who applies toning lotions on her children of 8 months and 3 years, she said “I am not bleaching them. I only mix their shea-butter with one tube cream in order to protect them against rashes and other skin infections,” not minding that the mixture is shown to be discolouring the children’s skin.

Why bleaching is popular in Nigeria
In spite of the efforts of NAFDAC to control the manufacture, importation, exportation, distribution, advertisement, sale and use of cosmetics, chemicals, and medical devices, the Nigerian market is still flooded with all kinds of locally made and imported skin lightening and bleaching products, most of which are unregulated.

The NAFDAC director said that “the challenge with cosmetics regulation lies mostly in the continued use of banned and toxic chemicals in these products.” He stressed that “the urge to satisfy customers’ ever-increasing demands has driven some cosmetic manufacturers to experimenting with raw materials with little or no safety records, (sidestepping) the statutory framework for regulation of cosmetics and medical devices which allow regulators to review and approve products before they are sold to the public.”

Others believe that Nigeria’s porous borders is another problem in regulation of these products, as some even enter the market unlabelled and without NAFDAC registration numbers, concealing the active ingredients they contain.

Still, many Nigerians, especially traders go for these unlabelled products as they are generally cheaper than the labelled brands. Some even go as far as mixing three or four different products or to seek out illicit beauticians on the streets who mix or recommend for them. This, according to Orhii, is a very dangerous trend, considering the potential toxicity of the products’ ingredients.

Dangers of bleaching the skin 
According to NAFDAC, the continued use of bleaching products could cause serious psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems. This is because the “active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, which can lead to mercury poisoning.” Mercury is a toxic agent that can cause serious psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems. Pregnant women who use a skin lightener with mercury can pass the mercury on to their unborn child. Mercury can accumulate in the body and cause poisoning, which can lead to kidney or liver failure.

Orhii noted that some now go as far as injecting Glutathione, a drug used in the treatment of cancer which is believed to have the capability of whitening the skin by inactivating the enzyme “Tyrosinase, which is necessary in melanin production, the pigment that determines skin colour and converts this pigment to lighter Phaecomelanin.”

“The use of Glutathione as a skin whitener is not approved. The alarming increase in the unapproved use of Glutathione administered intravenously as a skin-whitening agent at very high doses is unsafe and may result in serious consequences.

“Furthermore, other chemicals that have been medically proven to be injurious to health such as Hydroquinone above 2%, and topical Corticosteroids have also been incorporated into cosmetic products for skin lightening or skin toning.

“Banned chemicals also include Boric acid and Lanolin in baby products. The use of these chemicals in cosmetic products can cause various ranges of skin deformation, injury to skin and cancers.

“This unethical practice by manufacturers, coupled with ignorance on the part of consumers, has left many skins permanently damaged.”

What the regulatory agency has recently done to curb this dangerous trend
In recognition of health threats such as but not limited to cancer of the skin, that continued use of banned and toxic chemicals poses, NAFDAC recently organized a training for Cosmetic and Medical Devices Manufacturers in Nigeria.

The 2-day training was aimed at informing manufacturers of the hazardous nature of using banned and toxic products in production, the importance of eradication of  adverse effects of such products and the need to comply with the regulatory requirements of NAFDAC for their products to ensure that products are manufactured in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).

Orhii said that “the importance of eradication of the adverse effects of such products ranging from skin deformation, injury to skin and cancers cannot be over emphasized.” The Director added that “with the increased use of cosmetics and medical devices, it has become imperative to give these products specific attention owing to their complexity and high potential risks to consumer health and this makes the regulation of these products vital to healthy living.”

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