Quest for Light Skin Is Darkening Lives in Africa


The TV ad couldn’t be clearer: A young woman stares lovingly at her young man in a college cafeteria. Another pretty woman with slightly lighter skin saunters by, and the young man teasingly asks his girlfriend how he can tell the woman that she is the “most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

His girlfriend is devastated.

In chimes a female voice, advising her to use Fair and Lovely, a skin cream that “has special fairness vitamins” and is guaranteed to lighten the complexion in just six weeks. The young woman uses the cream and, sure enough, keeps her man.

The advertisement, aired on Kenyan television, assures women that the skin cream will give them “a new fairness that lights up your life!”


The cream’s manufacturers insist that Fair and Lovely is not a bleach. But creams, some containing bleaching agents, that promise to “whiten” and “brighten” the skin and make women “more attractive” are the rage in many African countries.

Dermatologists Cite Dangers

From the West African powerhouse of Nigeria to South Africa, women and men too are using creams, lotions and sometimes capsules to get fairer skin. Though users insist that using bleaching creams is simply a matter of fashion, experts say there are important medical and sociological questions involved.

Dermatologists warn that many of the creams and pills give false guarantees, and say they are dangerous enough that they should be banned in Kenya.

They contain large amounts of hydroquinone, a white crystalline de-pigmenting agent that is safe in small concentrations but can be fatal in large doses. Symptoms of over-ingestion range from ringing in the ears and nausea to shortness of breath, convulsions and delirium.

Psychologists argue that the trend of trying to lighten the complexion points to a deep-seated resentment of black skin and a lack of self-esteem. They believe that education in the importance of “black pride” is the answer.

“Some women try to make themselves lighter so that men can be more attracted to them,” said Dr. Frank Njenga, a Kenyan psychiatrist and respected social commentator. “It’s the men who have the idea that white women, or light-skinned women, are more attractive.”


In some African societies, a fairer-skinned person is viewed as not only sexier but also worthier and more intelligent. People with lighter skin are often given preference in the workplace.

Njenga said this attitude is part of the legacy of slavery and colonization, which perpetuated black self-hatred.

“It’s a systematic thing of colonizing people’s minds,” Njenga said. “When you extend the whole thing to the political arena and the social pecking order, at the subconscious level at least, there is a feeling that the lighter your skin, the better.”

Mary Goretty Adhiambo learned firsthand about the physical problems that can result from complexion lighteners. As a dark-skinned teenager, she was envious of her sisters’ lighter color and was mortified when her friends and relatives made fun of her chocolate complexion. For almost 20 years, she smothered her face and body with a variety of bleaching creams and lotions, trying to obtain the “perfect” caramel tone.

“In the beginning, it looked good,” said Adhiambo, 34, a hairstylist and mother of four children, ages 9 to 17. “I was happy with my color. My friends told me I looked beautiful.”

But gradually, her skin began to thin and burn. Red patches spread over her cheeks and below her eyes. Green veins began to protrude on her forehead and arms. Black lumps appeared all over her stomach. She stopped using the chemicals but broke out in a rash. Then, she began to sprout a thick mustache.


“People started laughing at me and telling me I looked old,” Adhiambo recalled.

Most of the European-manufactured products Adhiambo used contained hydroquinone, which reduces the production of melanin, the skin protector and pigment that gives black people their dark complexion.

Melanie Miyanji, a Nairobi consultant and dermatologist who campaigns against the use of bleaching creams, said that just as in Europe, not more than 2% of hydroquinone is permitted in nonprescription medications in Kenya. But as in many African countries, the regulations are ignored here, and many of the brands from Europe and Asia flooding the market contain higher doses. Often, they do not even indicate the amount of the substance they contain. Neither do they warn users of possible side effects.

Even those products that carry the allowed dose advise users merely to avoid contact with the eyes, to use them only externally and to discontinue use if irritation occurs. Some of the products even contain small quantities of mercury.

“We don’t have very stringent regulations,” said Miyanji, who has treated several patients for skin disorders related to bleaching products. “A lot of public information is what we lack.”

Many beauty shops around Nairobi, the capital, boast eye-catching window displays of skin-lightening solutions, which entice women to step inside. Some of the products cost as much as $10--a substantial sum in a country where the official average monthly wage is less than $100. Some users, such as Adhiambo, admitted to buying as much as $40 worth a week.

Officials at Unilever subsidiary East Africa Industries in Nairobi, the maker of Fair and Lovely, claim theirs is the best-selling brand on the market. They insist that it does not contain hydroquinone or any other product that would alter the amount of melanin in the skin and that there is no danger of side effects.


Magazine ads for Fair and Lovely say it contains a substance that “works along with your skin’s natural process and effectively controls the melanin from deep within.”

Stopping Process Can Backfire

But Hautencia Njambi Mwangi, who got hooked on skin-lightening creams, is no longer convinced that any of them work without doing harm. She says she would advise women to stay away from any kind of product that promises to change their natural color.

For her, hives, rashes and scales have been the result of years of overuse of a variety of such products. When she tries to stop using them, the symptoms just get worse.

“After three days, my face is black, I have rashes, and it is no longer smooth--it’s not attractive,” said Mwangi, a 26-year-old hairdresser who started to bleach her skin in high school.

Many users gradually become darker when they quit using the chemicals, and they develop a scaly veneer on their skin. Few, if any, return to their original skin color.

A visit to a dermatologist finally convinced Adhiambo, the other hair designer, to stop. The doctor prescribed some medicated soap and his own healing balm. The pimples have disappeared from her face, but the mustache remains, requiring her to shave every two weeks.


“I regret I started using the creams,” said Adhiambo, who wouldn’t mind regaining her natural cocoa hue. “I put myself in danger.”


Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II in Los Angeles and Bertha Omany-Odeny of The Times’ Nairobi Bureau contributed to this report.