Vladimir Duthiers, CNN, October 9, 2013
Many women in Nigeria make this clear: they want to have lighter-colored skin.
Cosmetic skin bleaches are all the vogue, but the risks may outweigh the perceived benefits.
Fair and white, that’s exactly what Lilian Irek would like to be. And the makers of fair and white and other skin lightening creams tell us that business has never been better.
The business of beauty is booming in Lagos, Nigeria. In fact, the World Health Organization says that 77 percent of Nigerian women use skin bleaching or skin-toning cosmetics, something that dermatologists say can be damaging to skin long-term.
The women CNN spoke with in one beauty shop say for them, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about looking good.
“When you’re fair, people easily notice you, you’re noticed everywhere, but when you’re dark it will be a bit difficult for people to notice you,” said Selina Nkwocha, sales representative for Kuddy Cosmetics.
However, just like tanning in the west, when not used properly, bleaching can have devastating effects on health. The main component in the cream is hydroquinone, a chemical the European Union and Japan have banned in cosmetics.
A spokesperson for Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration tells CNN it allows a maximum of two percent hydroquinone in cosmetics. That’s in line with over-the-counter so-called “brightening products” in the U.S. and Canada.
While these products are fine for removing blemishes and dark spots, the agency it tries to educate people about the hazards of prolonged bleaching.
Reporter: “Hydroquinone is a dangerous substance?”
“Yes, that’s one of the dangerous substances,” said Dr. Yetunde Mercy Olumide, dermatologist and professor emeritus with the University of Lagos.
Specifically, doctors here say hydroquinone can be harmful because it makes the skin lose its elasticity. That can cause complications during surgeries and caesarean childbirths.
“The abdominal suture line doesn’t heal, so you find what we call burst abdomen. I’ve seen it live, no stories, you know, and of course what follows, overwhelming infection, shock, and they die,” said Dr. Olumide.
Still, even women who know the risks are buying, and Nigerian society’s attitude towards light skin, is just driving this trend.
“For me personally I like lighter skin women,” said Cyril Okoi.
Reporter: “What would you tell a young girl or a young woman that is attracted to the idea of bleaching their skin?”
“I would say first of all, primarily, I would want to tell them black is beautiful,” said Dr. Olumide.