THE recent warning on the alarming rate at which Nigerians use bleaching and other skin-lightening products by the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control, Mojisola Adeyeye, is timely. It confirms how deeply and widespread the menace has become in Nigeria and how ignorance of its deadly negative effects is extensive and aiding its spread.
Adeyeye noted that just as the agency would discourage eating unwholesome food, it was also committed to stopping the use of bleaching creams because of their harmful effects on health. She deplored their pervasive use by Nigerians, especially women, despite the dangers associated with them.
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, skin lightening or skin bleaching is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of the skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone. While people use it to have lighter skins and appear more attractive, health experts have established lethal negative side effects from prolonged use, ranging from minor to long-term health hazards.
Used by dark-skinned people around the world seeking to look lighter or “white,” alarmingly, Nigerians are the largest consumers of these cosmetics.
Adeyeye repeated expert warnings that skin-lightening products could cause cancer, damage to vital organs of the body, skin irritation, allergies, skin burns, rashes, wrinkles, premature skin ageing and prolonged healing of wounds. She said NAFDAC had been carrying out raids on manufacturers, stores, and retail outlets in fulfilment of its mandate on safeguarding the health of Nigerians. These efforts must be intensified.
Experts say bleaching could also complicate surgical procedures. Therefore, there should be stricter regulation of the domestic manufacture, importation, distribution, and marketing of the products.
The Director, Chemical Evaluation, NAFDAC, Leonard Omokpariola, stresses that most of these bleaching cosmetic products are endocrine disruptors, adding that they could lead to early puberty and low sperm count in men due to high estrogenic activities.
This is not the first time the regulatory body has warned against the use of these products. In February, NAFDAC declared the use of bleaching creams as a “serious national health emergency.”
A World Health Organisation study revealed that skin bleaching creams use was prevalent among 77 per cent of Nigerian women, which is the highest in Africa, compared to 59 per cent in Togo, 35 per cent in South Africa, and 27 per cent in Senegal.
This scary statistics show that this problem requires a multi-faced regulatory approach. This would involve more than just warnings and consultative/sensitisation meetings. Raids on bleaching cream outlets should be stepped up and producers, marketers and importers found culpable of distributing banned products prosecuted.
NAFDAC alone cannot get the job done. There should be deeper stakeholder collaboration and extensive public sensitisation.
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In other climes, some cosmetic creams are not sold over the counter. In the UK, the NHS, in a recent publication, noted that skin products that contain hydroquinone and topical steroids such as hydrocortisone must only be bought with a doctor’s prescription.
The Nigerian government can borrow a leaf out of this book and ban these deadly products from the market. At the point of importation into Nigeria, NAFDAC and other relevant agencies must ensure that products are properly labelled before being passed on to the market. The warnings should be adequately explained to potential users. Improperly labelled products should be disallowed from circulation.
Some products may not even include an ingredient list, which is a red flag. The NHS added that skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury can cause skin to turn dark or too light; thinning of the skin; visible blood vessels in the skin (green veins); scarring; kidney, liver, or nerve damage; and abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy).
Walk in Dermatology, an online health journal, noted that worldwide, the market for skin lighteners in 2020 was estimated at $8.6billion, and is projected to hit $12.3billion in the next five years. Skin bleaching is now so popular that on a global level, skin-lightening products now represent half of the cosmetic industry, reported the United States-based NPR.
Many persons are unaware of the dangers posed to their lives by the creams they use. This calls for intensive sensitisation and stakeholder engagement. Dermatologists say a little enhanced self-esteem for the sake of aesthetics is not worth the risk of bleaching the skin.
Skin bleaching preparations inhibit melanin production within the skin cells. They block the formation of the enzyme tyrosine, which helps produce the amino acids of melanin. When melanin is no longer being produced naturally to replace skin cells that slough off, the result is a lighter skin tone. But because melanin also protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays, bleaching products that stop melanin production invariably pose a greater risk of provoking certain skin cancers.
Although the research is inconclusive, some scientists suggest that hydroquinone and mercury react with ultraviolet rays, and this only triggers more pigmentation – as well as premature skin ageing. Sociologists have said some deep-seated cultural notions of what constitutes beautiful skin are often the driving force behind the demand for bleaching products. Sensitisation messages should seek to address this.
Medical research also revealed that bleaching the skin increases the risk of mercury poisoning. Some bleaching creams contain mercury, which is proven to cause lung and kidney damage with prolonged exposure.
In response to their health risks, several African countries, including South Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana, have banned the importation and use of bleaching creams.
Ultimately, people should take responsibility for keeping themselves from harmful choices. Adeyeye said, “Nigerians should always know that black is beautiful, and they do not need to bleach their skin to please anyone,” read up on the creams and soaps they use and avoid buying and using harmful products.
NAFDAC should step up its campaigns; the federal, states and local governments should buy into the national health emergency alarm, collaborate, and lead vigorous remediation efforts. NGOs, faith-based organisations, educational institutions, communities, social associations and traditional institutions should be incorporated in a nationwide campaign to reduce this self-inflicted health hazard. ,
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