By Flavia Nassaka
More women, and men, flirting with disaster
The beauty salon in downtown Kampala was recommended to me by a friend as a good spot to get a basic cleaning of my face by a professional beautician. Irene Nangobi, who runs the clinic, has built quite a reputation. Her customers call her `Mama Lususu’ which literally meaning `mother of great skin’. Her salon is a single partitioned room with the front end used for manicure and haircuts and a waiting area. The back is where Nangobi does the skin treatment. She has a large clientele and I sensed it could get really crowded as I joined a queue of about ten women waiting their turn to enter the back room.
Soon, however, the smell of chemicals started to make me cough. I felt a choking in my throat. Seeing my discomfort, the woman nearest to me explained that the chemical in the skin treatments sometimes have that effect.
From the conversation in the queue, I noted that most of the women had come to pick mixed lotions, soap and creams to improve their skins. There was one worried-looking customer whose face appeared pinkish with dark blisters. She told us that her skin was clear until she used a skin lightening cream that over-bleached her face and left parts of it scarred and darker. She now wanted Nangobi to help. She said she had already tried many remedies in vain. She said her skin also itches and had started peeling.
When I got my turn with Nangobi, I asked her why women continue to bleach when, to me, the dangers are well-known.
“We live in an era where a beautiful face is considered an asset and good skin as an investment,” she said, “So it is no wonder that more and more people are opting for cosmetic procedures in order to improve their appearances.”
For Nangobi that means good money. The cheapest procedure at her salon costs Shs300, 000 (Approx.US$120). Nangobi says she rakes in Shs2 million daily (Approx.US$800). Not bad considered that is pay of two months for most office workers in the city.
Nangobi appears to practice what she preaches. Her skin bears the delicate, light orange-peach of treated brown skin.
Unlike before, when skin bleaching was mainly done by the rich and glamour-seeking upper class women, it is obvious from Nangobi’s clients that women from all walks of life are using skin lightening chemicals. The only difference is the price. Whatever the size of one’s purse, however, the influx of diverse kinds of cosmetics on the market ensures that customers are spoilt for choice.
Skin lightening is so popular that when the Finance minister announced a 10% excise duty on cosmetic in 2012, women in the city threatened to take to the streets in protest. They wanted their cosmetics tax free and cheaper, presumably so they could use more.
Even when the government banned some hazardous skin lightening cosmetics; especially those with high mercury and hydroquinone contents, they still find their way to the shelves because of the big market.
There’s a lotion or cream for every one whether upscale or low end. You can see this in the many beauty shops that have sprouted up in downtown Kampala, posh city suburbs, and low income neighbourhoods. Street vendors also sell skin lightening gels, soaps, lotions and creams door-to- door. If lightened skin is beautiful – as most of those with bleached skin believe, then the impression one gets in downtown Kampala is that this is a city of ‘bleached beauties’.
When I enter one of the shops to chat up the attendants, I notice that most of the women make almost similar orders. At least 20 of them walk in in the short time I am there. One of them asks for a specific lotion whose name was familiar because it was on the list of the banned cosmetics which the Uganda Bureau of Standards published in the newspapers a few years ago. Unlike other cosmetics that were displayed on the shelves, the attendant picked this specific lotion from under the counter, quickly packed and handed it to the customer.
The shop also catered for bulk purchases. I could see that business was booming for most shops on the street. As elsewhere in the world, the skin-whitening business, predicted to globally hit the US$20 million mark by 2018, is big in Uganda.
Those who bleach, and its increasingly men too, have different reasons for it. Most are reluctant to discuss it. Some deny it. But not Vera Sidika, the Kenyan model who recently came out openly to declare that she bleached, Sidika says it’s trendy and that she spent over US$170,000 on the procedure. According to her posts on social media, Sidika says that since she changed her appearance, her confidence has been enhanced and her income has increased too.
In her other posts she said that men prefer light skinned women and this could be dragging many young women like her into engaging in dangerous practices that eventually not only ruin their skins but their health too.
Margueritte Tandekwire, a beautician running PR Natural beauty outlet in Kampala says there is nothing wrong in seeking to improve on one’s looks. However, she cautions that one doesn’t need chemicals to improve looks because there are natural products and practices that can keep people’s skins looking good.
Tandekwire says even the whitening, evening, and toning of the skin that is often sought from cosmetics can be achieved through health practices such as keeping the body hydrated by taking a lot of water, juice, and fruits.
“Cosmetics have contents that not only stress but damage the skin and expose it to harsh environmental conditions,” she warns.
Dr. Fred Kambugu, a dermatologist at Kampala Skin Clinic says that bleaching has become a public health challenge as people go in without full knowledge. Most look at the physical change the chemicals will make to their appearance but rarely consider the psychological effects.
“The results of bleach can be in place for only a short time and the rest of the time is spent trying to reverse the consequences,” he says.
Dr Kambugu says, medically, skin whitening products are used for treating pigmentation disorders like mottled skin tone, freckles, age spots, and pregnancy marks.
Skin pigmentation occurs because the body either produces too much or too little melanin, the pigment responsible for creating the color of our skin and hair. Kambugu explains that bleaching rids the skin of melanin by blocking or reducing its production which exposes one’s skin to absorbing ultra-violet sun rays. As a result, bleached skin is more susceptible to sun burn and other ills associated with sun damage.
“Bleaching creams and lotions contain chemicals such as hydroquinone and mercury which inhibit melanin. Just 2% of hydroquinone in a cream can completely peel one’s skin,” he says.
The doctor warns that though doctors advocate for use of natural products, not all of them are good for the skin since some; such as shrubs and berries, contain melanin inhibiting ingredients like arbutin that can eventually bleach the skin.
Kambugu explains that short term effects of using bleaching products are minimal though one may get allergic reactions like burning immediately after use. It is the long term effects that should be a worry. They can be severe, as when the skin can get inflamed, turns red, enlarges and begins to lose function as the cells fail to produce melanin. In the end one gets the ‘Coca Cola- Fanta’ effect where parts of the body appear darker and others light.
The World Health Organisation warns that mercury in the chemicals damages the kidney. Other long-term consequences of bleaching according to Dr Kambugu include skin cancer, leukemia, neurological and thyroid disorders mainly caused by high mercury contents in cosmetics.
Kambugu says, however, that there are people who get bleached because of negligence especially men. He advises people to always read the ingredients of whatever they buy. He cautions against following referrals since everyone has a different skin complexion fit for different cosmetics.