Rwanda Made the Sale of Skin Whitening Products a Crime. It’s Working, but Underground Market Persists
Umuhoza Rahmat, CNN, July 13, 2022
Sierra asks to use a pseudonym for fear of being caught by the authorities. The 27-year-old shopkeeper explains that she can’t maintain her seven-year skin lightening routine because a ban has made the products unaffordable.
In 2018, the Rwandan government began enforcing a nationwide ban on cosmetics and hair dyes containing harmful chemicals like hydroquinone (above certain levels) or mercury, making it illegal to produce or sell most skin lightening cosmetics.
So now, Sierra has a pressing problem: finding a new supplier. Because of the stiff penalties attached to getting caught, smugglers “refuse to sell them to just anyone,” she tells CNN. Anyone caught trading them is subject to up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of five million Rwandan francs (around US $5000). Many dealers have been arrested to date.
Sierra explains that if you’re not among the chosen few who have earned a smuggler’s trust, you simply can’t get hold of skin lightening creams, or “mukorogo” as they’re known locally.
The decision to ban the products came after authorities — ranging from the health and security departments to customs and local government — received countless reports of the damage done to users’ skins from applying these cosmetics, Simeon Kwizera, the public relations officer at the Rwandan Standards Board, tells CNN.
Misuse or prolonged use of products containing mercury, steroids or hydroquinone can be toxic to your health and despite the ban, there remains demand for lighter skin, which keeps the market for these products very much alive, albeit smaller and driven underground.
Regulations on skin lightening products in the small, landlocked country of around 13 million people began with a 2016 ministerial order that prohibited the use of 1342 harmful chemicals and compounds — including hydroquinone above certain percentages, mercury and steroids — in cosmetics. These three ingredients are commonly found in skin lightening products.
While the 2016 law outlined the prohibited ingredients and products, it was only in 2018 that authorities began clamping down on violations.
“There was a lag between the 2016 ministerial order and its enforcement in 2018,” Yolande Makolo, the Rwandan government spokesperson, tells CNN. This is because various departments needed to build capacity to inspect products and enforce the ban, she explains.
Rwandan law enforcement agents have relied on people informing on their neighbors in order to crack down on the illegal sale of skin whitening products. However, raids have been accompanied by efforts to raise awareness of the chemical properties of banned products, both among importers and local manufacturers, as a preventative measure.
Rwanda’s ban does seem to be faring better than other African countries that have imposed restrictions. In 1990, South Africa became the world’s first country to restrict the sale of skin-lightening creams containing harmful ingredients, Kenya then imposed its ban in 2001, the Ivory Coast in 2015, Uganda in 2016 and Ghana in 2017, but in many of these countries, skin lightening products continue to be sold quite openly, Professor Lester Davids from the University of Cape Town wrote in The Conversation.
Beyond product testing, awareness raising, and enforcing the ban through raids, Makolo admits that Rwanda still has some way to go to eliminate the practice of skin whitening altogether because there is still a generation “stuck to the idea that fair skin is better than dark.”
Dr. Kayitesi Kayitenkore, managing director at Kigali Dermatology Center, also tells CNN that colorism — which is discrimination against people with darker skin complexion, usually within the same ethnic or racial group — had not been sufficiently addressed as a cultural driver by the Rwandan government’s policies, and as such keeps feeding the underground market for skin lightening products.
Gerry Mugwiza, a former user-turned-community activist, agreed with Kayintenkore, but adds that this yearning for a lighter skin tone is driving some “to make their own creams using different [ingredients] such as hair products and liquid soaps.” She tells CNN that some vendors then disguise these homemade cosmetics by importing legal ones and using that packaging to conceal the illegal products.
“Just like any other illegal product, it could be found through other means,” confirms Clementine in Musanze.
Addressing social drivers is therefore “important to stem the future demand,” says WHO’s Onyon, whose team is currently working on a project to help three countries — Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka — better meet their obligations relating to the reduction of skin lightening products.
One of those drivers is advertising, says Onyon. “Some of the larger international companies who may not be using mercury in their products still advertise skin lightening which can drive a market for counterfeit and illegal products and even home remedies,” Onyon adds.
Reflecting on the Rwandan government’s progress to date, Makolo acknowledges the challenge is not just limiting supply but also changing harmful cultural norms.
“We have not reached zero demand. So, we will continue building capacity every day to enforce the policies better, and to raise awareness among young people better,” Makolo says. “It’s a work in progress.”