Demand soaring for skin whitening cream
Near the Addis Ababa Stadium, around the area once known as an Armenian ghetto during the old era of Emperor Haile Selassie of beautiful architectures currently used mainly as pharmacies and bank branches, there were young women who had come to purchase a famous lotion.
Named Fair & Lovely and others made by world famous multinationals such as L'Oreal, Olay, the cream is said to help them with their skin condition initially, but in reality is a skin lightening cream that is fast gaining popularity locally with little safeguarding from government authorities. Such products have now become so popular, many of the buyers first hear about them from words of mouth from their hairdressers and pharmacists to help them have a better skin tone.
The most popular cream in Ethiopia is produced by Unilever, as part of a white lightening business worth more than USD 10 billion in the world. To local users, the cream has helped them embrace an abnormal skin tone that suddenly is lighter, rejecting their dark skin which fast becomes less appealing. This is as the cream faces a backlash in the world in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement that has yet to reach Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, the phenomenon of white lightening skin has been growing in the last decade, since local entrepreneurs began to head to China and India and import commodities and see a brisk business.
A local entrepreneur, who is a frequent traveller to China, began importing such products two years ago and he was surprised to discover such an exclusive business where the demand is much greater that his capacity to deliver. He did not even have to open a store, when his online effort yielded much success.
“Best price Perfect White Lightening Serum is specially conceived for a fast and effective action. Thanks to its active treatments, Perfect White targets and removes immediately brown tasks and unifies the complexion in order to restore the skin to its natural brightness. Your skin is clear, fresh and smooth, it is perfect! Become young ever,” he advertised in an online typo prone effort.
Under his wrap, he carries skin care cream, peppermint oil, face steamer, shea butter and others, selling them anywhere from 200 birr to 1200 birr.
While some African nations, including Rwanda, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa have taken notice of the impact of such products to their populations and have banned them from importation, Ethiopia has not put anything forward to see it banned.
In 2016, Ghana banned the chemical used to make the product, hydroquinone as a “matter of public safety.” In addition, the creams were noted to contain mercury and high-dose steroids, which are hazardous to one’s health according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Like Ethiopia, Nigeria has done little to ban the products. Last year, a Nigerian medical doctor, Ola Brown coined an article for CNN reflecting on how 77 percent of Nigerian women use the product to lighten their skin.
“African women don't bleach their skin simply because they are vain. They lighten their skin because fair skin is too often seen as more attractive and provides them with an economic advantage,” he wrote.
Senait Tsegaye, a 22 former domestic worker and a recent returnee from Dubai started using such a cream when she moved there. To her, the ideal look meant you needed to be white as it represented the success she saw watching Kana TV. Dark skin, to her, was associated with misery, conflicts and poverty.
Going to a foreign land for work, she wanted to be more attractive, appealing to her “madam lady”.
“Months before I went abroad, a lotion was suggested to me as a way to be more appealing. At first, I was confused about what it was and what it would make me look. I applied it on my face and continued to various parts of my body. Then it became normal to me to use it. The issue I have now is, I completely need to use it evenly all over my body because if I do not, I will have different shades, dark and light skin,” she told The Reporter.
Another importer of such products in the Mercato market, with an array of brand and forged brand names told The Reporter, much of the products come from India, where the market has blossomed into a half-a-billion USD business and where much of the population still use it to lighten their skin.
He told The Reporter, while cosmetics are a brisk business with a growing population with spending power, much of it like nicotine comes by way of Dire Dawa without paying duty taxes and out of the bounds of the government and wondered how it could be banned with such an open border and corruption.
“I am aware of the risk of using these products. The people who come and purchase these products come from vulnerable populations and have little exposure or information on it. They just have a dream of being beautiful and successful. I am a businessman. My role is to sell and meet the demands of my customers. I am unfortunately, not in the business of preaching. That is the role of the government,” he said.
While most of the targeted market – mostly young and vulnerable - is recruited by way of an online advertisement and communication, there are now advocates against its use from unexpected sources.
Recently, a local teenager wrote an online post asking which lightening cream she should be using and the reaction was not what she was looking for.
“I’m (sin) a 17-year-old girl who lives in Ethiopia. What’s the best whitening cream or soap for a black-skineed person which is effective?” she wrote.
Jan Krusat, a self-described Licenced aircraft maintenance engineer was quick to respond.
“First, stay as you are. You are most likely very pretty. And your skin gives you good protection against sunlight. Secondly, the chemicals used in whitening soaps and creams are not exactly healthy. I know some Ethiopian women here in Germany (the airline I’m currently working for has hired several Ethiopian flight attendants), they all have embraced their heritage and carry their skin colour and curly hair with pride. And they look very good as they are!” he wrote to her.
“Skin whiteners come in two categories: those that do not work and those that have massive side effects that will irreversibly damage your skin. If you have hyperpigmented spots caused by acne, consult a dermatologist to see what medically monitored options are available for you. If you do not have any skin problems, using whiteners is only going to cause them,” another advised.