In 2019, a video of a woman in a bathtub filled with what appeared to be a green chemical surfaced on the internet. In it, another woman scrapes at her skin with a spatula to reveal lighter skin.
This video was made in a spa located in Lagos, Nigeria and the procedure was referred to as the “Instant Whitening Wash” by the spa’s owner. In layman’s language, it was a bleaching procedure intended to take the woman from a darker-skin tone to a lighter one.
Yes, it is just as horrifying as it sounds.
According to the National Health Service, skin bleaching is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone. Through decades of colourism induced by colonialism, slavery and racism, it’s no surprise that Black women began to resent their darker skin tones, turning towards bleaching products and methods to help them become lighter.
Because lighter skin tones have been viewed as the epitome of female beauty and have gone on to create beauty hierarchies (with darker skin tones ranking at the bottom of the totem pole), it’s entirely unsurprising that women will go through procedures, albeit sometimes extreme methods, to move up the rungs of the desirability ladder.
We often view beauty as entirely subjective, with epithets such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” ignoring the very real, systemized way that beauty is upheld and enforced. Turns out, there are very clear benchmarks of what society views as beautiful and they have real impacts on how you navigate life. Having a lighter skin tone is one of them and it can affect an array of things from the kind of jobs you get to how nicely you’re treated by strangers.
The global industry for skin-lightening products is valued at $8 billion and is projected to increase by nearly half of that within six years. Even with this statistic, the bleaching industry continues to thrive unregulated in Nigeria. Countries like Ghana and Rwanda have taken measures to ban the sale of bleaching products but it doesn’t look like Nigeria will do the same.
Nigerian celebrities like Bobrisky often share videos of themselves bleaching and also sign endorsement deals with well-known brands that sell bleaching products. These problematic co-signs inadvertently normalize the practice and blatantly ignore how dangerous it is. Skin bleaching works by reducing the melanin concentration of the skin and to do this, powerful chemicals like mercury, hydroquinone and glutathione are used.
These chemicals have the ability to cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, and kidneys and of course, increase the risk of skin cancer.
Because Nigeria’s beauty industry remains largely unregulated, skincare brands are able to produce products that can cause long-lasting harm. While some argue that they are simply feeding demands in the market, these brands not only have a responsibility to refuse to perpetuate harmful beauty standards but also produce products that are safe. Reports as seen in this thread, also show that some beauty brands include other ingredients such as relaxers, hair dye and blue bleaching powder in their bleaching products.
There are dozens of these brands in Nigeria and almost all of them are owned by people who do not have the license to produce cosmetic products.
JennysGlow, one of the bigger ones, stocks products such as the ‘Half cast set’, Oshaprapra Snow White Soap and Snow White Lotion on her website and claims to offer “quick results”. A quick scroll through her Instagram page shows many eager customers in the comments section raving about their skin-lightening successes and the compliments they receive now that they have fairer skin.
Earlier in May this year, the brand received backlash for selling bleaching products and reportedly telling its customers to use their products “small small” so it doesn’t destroy their skin. Not only is this an incredibly irresponsible statement from the brand it showed the dangerously lax attitude they have towards the health of your skin. Why produce products that have the potential to cause harm? After the statements, many people took to social media to criticise them for it.
It seems like the criticism didn’t do much, JennysGlow still boasts 14.2k followers on Instagram and repeatedly sells out.
Countries like the U.S have made it so that brands are required to disclose their ingredient list to consumers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Nigeria and anything goes with these “skin-lightening” products. Just last week, we saw a BTS video of a woman mixing Hollandia yoghurt with other chemicals to make a lightening soap.
In the video, she exclaims, “If it is not edible, it is not Ashabi Glow”. These skincare brands often have no knowledge of chemical composition and are just in it to make a quick buck at the expense of the safety of their customers.
While it’s easy to tell women to simply not bleach, it is important that we acknowledge all the ways that society plays a part in the bleaching epidemic. Unfortunately, as long as lighter skin continues to be touted as the beauty standard and as long as that beauty standard upholds benefits, women will continue to seek out these products. The Nigerian government need to do better too. Countries like Rwanda and Ghana have moved to ban skin bleaching products and while this is not 100% effective, it is a step in the right direction.