South Africa is marketed to the world as Mandela’s
rainbow nation, where everyone is proud of their race and
heritage. But for some black South Africans there is such
a thing as being too black.
A recent study by the University of Cape Town suggests that
one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin. The
reasons for this are as varied as the cultures in this country
but most people say they use skin-lighteners because they
want “white skin”.
Local musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi, now several shades
lighter, says her new skin makes her feel more beautiful and
She has been widely criticised in the local media and social
networking sites for her appearance but the 30-year-old says
skin-bleaching is a personal choice, no different from breast
implants or a having nose job.
“I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted
to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to
be white and I’m happy,” she says candidly.
Over the past couple of years Ms Mnisi has had several
treatments. Each session can cost around 5,000 rand (£360;
$590), she tells the BBC.
Unlike many in the country, she uses high-end products which
are believed to be safer than the creams sold on the black
market but they are by no means risk-free, doctors say.
Ms Mnisi says she does not understand the criticism about her
“Yes, part of it is a self-esteem issue and I have addressed
that and I am happy now. I’m not white inside, I’m not really
fluent in English, I have black kids. I’m a township girl, I’ve
just changed the way I look on the outside,” she says.
The dangers associated with the use of some of these creams
include blood cancers such as leukaemia and cancers of the
liver and kidneys, as well as a severe skin condition called
ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the
skin to turn a dark purple shade, according to senior
researcher at the University of Cape Town, Dr Lester Davids.
“Very few people in South Africa and Africa know the
concentration of the toxic compounds that are contained in
the products on the black market and that is concerning. We
need to do more to educate people about these dangerous
products,” says Dr Davids.
He says over the past six years there has been a significant
increase in the number of skin lighteners flooding local
markets, some of them legal and some illegal. This is what
prompted their research.
Local dermatologists say they are seeing more and more
patients whose skin has been damaged by years of bleaching –
most of the time irreversibly.
“I’m getting patients from all over Africa needing help with
treating their ochronosis. There is very little we can do to
reverse the damage and yet people are still in denial about the
side-effects of these products,” says Dr Noora Moti-Joosub.
In many parts of Africa and Asia, lighter-skinned woman are
considered more beautiful, are believed to be more successful
and more likely to find marriage.
The origin of this belief in Africa is not clear, but researchers
have linked it to Africa’s colonial history where white skin was
the epitome of beauty.
Some have also suggested that people from “brown nations”
around the world tended to look down upon dark-skinned
‘I don’t like black skin’
The World Health Organization has reported that Nigerians
are the highest users of such products: 77% of Nigerian
women use the products on a regular basis. They are followed
by Togo with 59%; South Africa with 35%; and Mali at 25%.
South Africa banned products
containing more than 2% of
hydroquinone – the most common
active ingredient in in the 1980s.
But it is easy to see creams and
lotions containing the chemical on
the stalls here. Some creams
contain harmful steroids and others
While skin-lightening creams have
been used by some South Africans
for many years, they have become
more common recently with the
influx of people from countries such
as Nigeria and Democratic Republic
of Congo, where they are even more
In a bustling African market in the centre of Yeoville in
Johannesburg, it is skin lighteners galore.
Walking through this community is like walking through a mini-
Africa: you can find someone from any part of the continent
I notice that many of the women have uncharacteristically
light skin faces while the rest of their bodies are darker.
Some even have scabby burns on their cheeks from the
harmful chemicals used to strip the skin of pigmentation.
They don’t want to speak openly about why they bleach their
skin, or even have their pictures taken.
Psychologists say there are also underlying reasons why people
bleach their skin – but low self-esteem and, to some degree
self-hate, are a common thread.
But skin-lightening is not just a fascination and obsession of
women. Congolese hair stylist Jackson Marcelle says he has
been using special injections to bleach his skin for the past 10
years. Each injection lasts for six months.
“I pray every day and I ask God, ‘God why did you make me
black?’ I don’t like being black. I don’t like black skin,” he
Skin lightening creams are popular in many parts of
Mr Marcelle – known in this busy community as Africa’s
Michael Jackson – says his mother used to apply creams on him
when he was young in order to make him appear “less black”.
“I like white people. Black people are seen as dangerous; that’s
why I don’t like being black. People treat me better now
because I look like I’m white,” he adds.
Entrenched in the minds of many Africans from a young age is
the adage “if it’s white, it’s all right”, a belief that has
chipped away at the self-esteem of millions.
Until this changes, no amount of official bans or public
information campaigns will stop people risking serious damage
to their health in the pursuit of what they think is beauty.