Black is beautiful, or is it? By Dr. Leonard Sowah

Africa beauty industry featured Global Health Health education Personal health Race and health Uncategorized women's health

As the summer enters its full force and many plan their vacations to the beach and other sunny places, I remembered that not all of us are going to be enjoying the sun equally. There are a few who would avoid the sun like the plague, and this is not from fear of skin cancer. These individuals are worried of the tanning effect of the sun and the resulting darkening of their complexion. Summer life is never easy for those who aspire for the “beauty and allure” of the lily white skin.

Across the world there is a big worldwide industry catering to those who seek a lighter skin tone. From Manila in the Philippines to Kington, Jamaica this billion dollar industry continues to thrive on the myth of the beauty of a lighter toned skin.

A few of the products used mostly by women to achieve a lighter skin tone, unfortunately men are also slowly joining this market

Some of the active agents of the products sold in this industry include hydroquinone which  has been banned in several countries and has been associated with cancers like leukemia. Unfortunately not even the fear of cancer dampens the enthusiasm of those who seek these beauty potions. Some contain mercury which is banned on the US market. Also a significant number of these agents contain high levels of corticosteroids at par or sometimes even higher than prescription agents.

Application Kingston Jamaica
Lady applying skin lightening cream in Kingston, Jamaica

I once heard one lady talk about how her parents warned her about not spending too much time in the sun fearing that darkening of her skin could mar her marriage prospects. For this I blame the men who would rather focus on a  partner’s skin color than specific character traits and whatever else attracts them.

Whilst the patrons of this industry are mostly females there are many men who also bleach and challenge the women in the race to be the fairest.  Most people achieve their desire to be fairer and lighter but in most cases a close look at the hairline, areas around nail margins and knuckles usually show the tell tale signs of unnatural fair skin. The skin damage caused by some the active agents can sometimes be very significant and can be counter productive as is the case in discolored and blotched skin in the facial photo below.

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Skin damage from excessive use of bleaching and lightening agents

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report suggests that 77% of Nigerian women, 61% of Indians and 44% of Chinese women use skin lightening creams. The industry is currently led by international multinational corporations like L’Oréal, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Shiseido a Japanese beauty products giant. Whilst most countries like the UK, US, Kenya, the Philippines and Ghana have laws banning some of the products the market only continues to grow. Today a recent study estimates the market is projected to hit 34 billion by 2027, growth mostly driven by young urban males entering the market.

On account of the unreliable labeling of these products and difficulties faced by even developed nations like the United States and United Kingdom to track the movement of these agents onto their markets it is important that individuals take responsibility for their health. The myth of clear light beautiful skin is only a myth as beauty comes in all colors and shapes as any man or woman call tell you.

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Beauty in all shapes ad colors

Physicians and other healthcare professionals should be vigilant and educate their patients on the risks associated with these agents. With prolonged use the products that contain steroids could lead to thinner skin and impaired skin healing. In some cases shutdown of the normal adrenal cortex responsible for the maintenance of several of our body functions including blood pressure control can occur from prolonged use of these steroid containing products. This is life-threatening and whilst we all appreciate pretty and attractive looks putting our lives at risk to achieve that is definitely going too far.

To all my brothers and sisters, I would like to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever the color of your skin you are well appreciated for who you are. If you need to change your skin color to make someone like or love you then they don’t really deserve you.

Black couple piggy back on beach, lovingly

Go out there and live your life in the skin suit that you were given by your maker.

Dr. Leonard Sowah ia an Internal Medicine Physician in Baltimore, Maryland

Photo Credit

Feature Photo – Dominican American singer-songwriter Amara La Negra

Photo-Collage – Multiple internet sources

Jamaican Lady – The Grio


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan