Scores of Ugandans continue to bleach their skin despite a government ban on the sale of several lotions, creams, gels and soaps which are largely used to whiten, even and tone the skin.
Due to ineffective enforcement of the ban, these dangerous cosmetics are easily accessible anywhere in Uganda; whether sold over the counter, along the roadside or by hawkers, vendors move the skin lighteners easily due to high demand. Such is the popularity that skin-whitening products have gained today in Uganda.
According to dermatologists, skin bleaching can be achieved through a combination of treatments that reduce or block some amount of the body’s melanin production. Usually in the form of topical lotions, gels, pills and creams, these products contain melanin-inhibiting ingredients along with sunscreen. These treatments also contain amounts of hydroquinone, or mercury.
However, other cosmetics companies use natural ingredients to make melanin-inhibiting products. Extracted from plant leaves like the berry family, shrubs and pears, their naturally occurring arbutin leads to bleaching.
In Uganda, the practice of skin bleaching is common among adults with dark skin, especially women, but men also do it with little regard for the dangers posed to their bodies. Some people even use the products for anal bleaching to reduce naturally darker pigmentation of the genital and perineal area.
Consumers of bleaching cosmetics claim that they want to enhance their beauty. One woman who declined to be named, explains, “One has to look good, by having fair, lighter skin.”
Unfortunately, her skin is now multi-colored from bleaching. She has red skin on her face, yellow on her arms and dark skin on her back. The skin on her knees, toes and finger joints failed to lighten and remain black.
For this woman, the condition of her skin has only brought her shame; she now tries to cover most parts of her body in an attempt to conceal the damage done by the products she thought would enhance her beauty.
[Dr Misaki Wayengera of Makerere University Medical School.] explains that the skin of the people using these bleaching products get inflamed, turns red, enlarges and begins to loose function as the cells fail to produce melanin.
Though the East African Custom Management Act of 2006 banned the import of all soaps containing mercury, products like Mekako soaps are readily available in the country having been smuggled in before being re-exported to neighboring Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Ready markets for these highly valued cosmetics suggest that smuggling won’t stop any time soon, but demand alone does not explain why one would continue to use these dangerous products.