The Costs of Lighter Skin in Ethiopia

By Meron Tekleberhan


Skin Lightening creamsAddis Ababa, April 1, 2012 ( - Sitting in a dermatologist’s office recently I overheard two women speak of unaccountable blemishes that have appeared on their faces and one claimed that it was probably a side effect of a skin product that she uses. I recognized the name of the product to be of a well-known facial cream promising fairer skin in a short amount of time.


The other woman admitted to using the same product but confidently asserted that it could not be the cause for her skin condition as it was an internationally recognized brand with multivitamins especially added to ensure the protection of the skin.


The first woman was quick to be reassured that although she noted that most women felt it was advisable to keep away from direct sunlight when using the product and that she had neglected this caution which could possibly account for the discoloration that had appeared on her face.


Having known of the product (and been encouraged to use it myself several times), I was also aware of women who have complained of several skin conditions after using the product for some periods of time. Further research also led me to the opinion that seem to indicate that certain skin conditions, including skin cancer, can be traced to the use of fairness creams, or skin bleaches.


The particular product under discussion and others like it are widely sold in a range of outlets from neighborhood kiosks to the upper end supermarkets and cosmetics shops. The products are used by women of all ages and socioeconomic groups because of their availability and affordability.


Genet, 28, claims that she has been using a fairness cream since her late teens to achieve a lighter complexion. ‘My natural complexion is much darker than is considered fashionable and I have always wanted to be lighter. A friend at school with noticeably lightened skin let me try her cream and I was impressed by the results. People told me that I looked lighter in just a few days and I have been using the same product ever since’ she said. Genet claims that the side effects of using the product are few and that she hasn’t experienced any serious problems.


“I was warned to stay away from direct sunlight to avoid blemishes and although my face has a tendency to seem dry and flaky as well as being more sensitive it hasn’t been to serious a problem,’ explained Genet.


Sister Nigiste Hailemariam, long time assistant in a dermatological practice however differs in her assessment of the potential consequences of using skin lightening creams. “We deal with the sad consequences of skin lightening everyday in our practice and it’s never a simple thing” she said. “It seems that more and more women are using such product and what is truly sad is when very young girls who have no need for cosmetic enhancement ruin their complexion permanently by using these products.”


The skin products that are widely available in our country are sold to unsuspecting women who have no awareness whatsoever as to the potential serious consequences associated with using them according to Sister Nigiste.


“Women are conditioned by society to believe that lighter skin is more beautiful and these products promise to deliver lighter skins. There is little to no public awareness of the potential consequences of using these products except for the oft repeated and dogmatically accepted belief that sunlight is the only thing to avoid” she explained.


“The most common side effects are skin irritation, blistering, discoloration, swelling and itching but recent studies are revealing an increased risked for skin cancer for darker skinned women who use skin lightening products” noted Sister Nigiste.


The use of skin lightening products is widespread in many parts of Africa and Asia and has been associated with skin cancers. In some countries, for example Senegal, Jamaica campaigns are already underway to raise awareness on the risks associated with skin lightening and bleaching products.


A key ingredient in many fairness products ‘hydroquinone’ has been banned by many countries including, South Africa, Australia, Japan and the European Union because of increasing evidence that revealed its potential to stop the production of melanin by the skin thus reducing the skins natural defenses against skin nature.


This lose of natural defense is especially more harmful to people living in tropical regions and on the equator with high levels of sun exposure who consequently have higher levels of melanin and hence darker skins as an evolutionary mechanism to prevent sunburn.


Other ingredients to be found in fairness creams that contribute to irritation by peeling the outer layer of the skin and exposing the inner layer are Ammonia and Retinolic Acid which is also known as Vitamin A. Vitamin A, if absorbed by the body in large doses can also cause toxicity according to some reports.


In the face of increasing evidence establishing the negative side effects associated with the use of fairness creams the continuing ignorance that prevails amongst women in Ethiopia requires immediate address. The issue should be given due attention by governmental and non-governmental bodies towards raising awareness of the potential consequences associated with the use of the products extending to but not limited to public service announcements, inserts to be sold with the products and discussion of the topic in public media.


Meron Tekleberhan


Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.


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