Is Beauty Really Only Skin Deep? Exploring the Skin Bleaching Epidemic in Africa

Bold and Fearless Loving the Skin We're in Skin bleaching
06 Jun 2015

The skin bleaching epidemic is global; however, it's most prevalent in Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Nigeria tops the list of the percentage of women in the country using skin-whitening products with 77%. Togo came in second with 59%, and Senegal third at 27%. With these types of numbers, it is clear that business is booming for the companies that make these products.

The reasons people decide to lighten their skin vary. Many people start out using skin lightening products to combat the issue of hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common skin disorders for darker skin.  It’s a condition in which there is an overproduction of pigment caused by increased melanin. It can also be caused by sun exposure, acne, medications, and irritation to the skin, resulting in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Skin lightening creams are not the best way to treat this disorder. Rather, using exfoliants and the right cleansers will help remove those dead skin cells, balancing your skin tone and leaving you with the beautiful black skin your Creator gave you.

Some people use these bleaching creams to remove scars. However, the vast majority of people who bleach their skin have been indoctrinated to believe that being of a darker hue is unattractive. This type of thinking has been blamed on Western colonization, but even after so many years of fighting for freedom and equality, many of us still don’t consider ourselves equal unless we can lighten our skin. The number of people that bleach their skin in Africa is at an all time high. So many people who use these products don’t fully understand the adverse effects, so my goal as a licensed esthetician, is to break it down for you.

Hydroquinone is the most active ingredient in bleaching creams and works by inhibiting the pigment-forming enzyme “tyrosinase.” It has been banned in some countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Australia, Japan, and all of Europe due to its link to cancer. This chemical is considered to be an irritant above 4% concentration and can be an unstable ingredient in formulations of cosmetic products. Some scientists have also proposed that hydroquinone poisoning can lead to a lower IQ and verbal difficulties.

Mercury is also another active ingredient in skin lightening creams. It can cause skin rashes, skin discoloration, and scarring (according to WHO). This particular ingredient is also used in many skin-lightening soaps, which some people apply to the skin and leave to dry overnight. All in the hopes of expediting the process of skin lightening. You can’t help but wonder if the increased likelihood of getting skin cancer is really worth all the money spent on bleaching products?

skin bleaching in AfricaThe skin bleaching debate went into overdrive in 2014 when Dencia, a Cameroonian singer, created and became the face of the product “Whitenicious.” While this product sold out within a day of hitting the market, what it failed to mention is that its use will totally wash away all traces of your Black skin. If that’s what you want, surely no one can stop you from going for it, but again, I ask why? One look at this image of a woman suffering from the effects of prolonged use of skin bleaching products should give you pause if you are considering it.

I asked a few people about their thoughts on skin bleaching. Here is what they had to say:

“I am no way a fan of white, fair skin, but even if I were tempted, I look around me and I see people with ‘bleaching gone wrong’ and I promptly give up the idea. Well maintained dark skin rocks any day.”
—Ugochi John-Nwosu Obialor , Nigeria

“There’s NO way on EARTH I would ever BLEACH this BEAUTIFUL DARK CHOCOLATE. It's my identity. Being my father's first-born child, it's his dark skin: lighten for what? I am dark and Beautiful, I love my SKIN, tone!” —Tatia Bradley, Nevada, USA

 “After creation God declared that you were good, and in his eyes you are the most perfect creature on earth. If everybody would remember this, the world would be a perfect place to live. But personally, I think people change who they are because of lack of self acceptance and lack of self acceptance leads to utter destruction of one’s image.” —Sister Mary Felita Iwenofu, Manchester, United Kingdom

“Bleaching is due to low self esteem, lack of confidence in oneself and pressure from a slave mentality/colonial mentality society where men sometimes urge their own wives to bleach.”
—Harrison “Harry Baba” Nwozo, Washington, DC, USA

“Bleaching starts from trial and error of beauty products. Once it goes wrong you keep trying to correct its side effect. Women that bleach have low self-esteem, but the reason I can't fathom is why men bleach also. Disgusting!” —Tochi Igbokwe, Abuja Nigeria.

“I would never bleach this beautiful caramel skin of mine. I love the skin I'm in. That's what the good Lord gave me and He DON'T make no mistakes!”
—Anetra Lowery, Maryland, USA

If you’ve ever heard the term, “Black don’t crack,” it’s because black skin doesn’t age as quickly. It's thicker and has more melanin for additional sun protection. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use sunscreen—but that’s a different topic for another article.

In essence, no matter what the media portrays as the “standard of beauty,” we owe it to ourselves to love the skin we’re in.

We’d like to hear from you. What are your thoughts on skin bleaching?

Photo (top) Eye Imagery


Oby Nwaogbe

Oby Nwaogbe has spent her career in communications as a television producer and news reporter covering stories that appeal to an international audience. In addition to other assignments, she is a U.S. correspondent for, Nigeria’s most exciting news and entertainment channel based in Lagos. In 2006, Oby founded her video production company, OBONE Productions, LLC providing multimedia and production services to both national and international clients. A licensed esthetician, she started Traveling Chix Mobile Spa, LLC to educate clients on the importance of being healthy from the inside out. Oby holds a Bachelors in Broadcast Journalism and Sociology from Howard University.


  1. Thank you for this very informative article, Oby. I’ve learned so much reading it.

  2. I feel like I have been under a rock. This is simply saddening. I truly believe all shades and variations of our beauty are just that – beautiful.

  3. Black is beautiful, I can’t see myself using a bleaching cream , I love and proud to be a black, my colour is priceless. Nice note you got. Thanks

  4. Mary E. N. Kiganda Says: June 10, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    THANKS AND THANKS again OB this is long overdue. It’s utter madness when we are told we had to get rid of mercury thermometers at work due to its dangers but we’re putting this poison WILLINGLY on our bodies. Indeed if we knew our value and worth in Christ this wouldn’t be happening.

  5. I love my brown skin, so much so I tan to get darker. I wouldn’t change anything about it. So its unfortunate to see those who don’t feel the same.

  6. This is a huge problem in Southeast Asia as well. There are billboards everywhere hailing white as beautiful and nearly every product has skin whitening cream in it including deodorant and sunscreen. People try any number of things to lighten their skin based on the premise that lighter is better. It’s terribly sad.

  7. Unfortunately, this is more common in Africa but also occurs in the US. It’s not as common as it was 50 years ago so maybe Nigeria will be there sooner.

  8. We have got to move away from this white supremacy paradigm. That’s the only thing that will stop people from mutilating themselves like this.

  9. I’m reading this in shock. I always thought this kind of thing was fake but thank you for educating me. I love our various skin tones as black people. It is what makes us beautiful.

  10. This is completely unfortunate! Black is and always will be beautiful. Thanks for sharing this perspective with us Oby!

    • Oby Nwaogbe Says: June 9, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks for reading the article, Tameka. Hopefully, the black community will begin to see the harm in skin bleaching.

  11. Wow. I was aware of this but I hadn’t read so much information as to what, why and how people are doing this. It’s sad to think some people are so unhappy in their skin! So sad.

    • Oby Nwaogbe Says: June 9, 2015 at 10:57 pm

      Thanks for reading the article, Rani. Our goal is to keep educating people on the adverse effects of skin bleaching. I must say that it is beginning to hit home as most countries are banning the active bleaching ingredient- Hydroquinone. Despite the efforts, there is still a booming market for skin bleaching creams, but we’ll get there one day soon.

  12. This is so sad. I had heard about skin bleaching and have seen the effects in the media. SMH. So much self hate.

    • Oby Nwaogbe Says: June 9, 2015 at 10:59 pm

      It is quite unfortunate. As we continue to spread the word on the harmful effects of bleaching, we’ll make some headway.

  13. Yes, it really is sad. I’ve seen this bleaching creams a lot when lived in South Korea and now here in the Middle East as well as South Africa. I really wish people could just love the skin they are in.

  14. I was sad to hear of this. I thought of any place in the world darker skinned would be accepted it would be Africa. I read the novel Americanah and learned of the skin bleaching in Nigeria. I hope this comes to an end. Look at Lupita! Hopefully she is an inspiration to many b

  15. I always get sad when I hear about this. I do feel this is definitely part brainwashing and western colonization that has caused this. But still, I do believe we have to do a better job of educating ourselves and understanding that we ARE beautiful just the way we are, we should not damage ourselves in the pursuit to look like something we are not 🙁

    • Oby Nwaogbe Says: June 9, 2015 at 11:01 pm

      You are right, Olivia. It ultimately comes down to us educating ourselves, and our children early. We’ll continue to educate and spread the knowledge. Thanks for reading the article.

  16. I think this is sad. I wish we would embrace our personal beauty and differences. 

    • Oby Nwaogbe Says: June 9, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      Quite unfortunate, but I believe we are slowly making progress. Let’s keep spreading the word any which way we can. Thanks for checking out the article. #teamnobleaching

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