Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Fanta Coca-Cola’?

Skin whitening or bleaching agents are a booming industry in contemporary Egypt, with sales rocketing despite the hazardous health consequences, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but, of course, society demands something more” Mark Twain

Lamentably, the skin-bleaching industry is driven by narcissistic passions. Countless women are convinced that men find them more desirable if they are “fair,” to use the English phrase, of complexion. The past few decades have produced a profusion of skin-bleaching creams. Needless to say, the pharmaceutical industry has made a killing. Dermatologists, on the other hand, have not made quite such a profit from people’s dermatological predicaments. And Egypt is no exception.

“The excessive and long-term use of cortisone, the 21-carbon steroid hormone commonly prescribed by medical practitioners for a variety of diseases in Egypt, is one of the main reasons for changes in skin tone and of skin diseases in this country. Many of my patients suffer from an overuse of cortisone. Unfortunately, most don’t know the real reason for their problems,” Hoda Rasheed, a professor of dermatology at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to the Fitzpatrick photo-typing scale, a numerical classification scale for human skin colour, the vast majority of Egyptians have skin complexions that range in colour from Type III, or cream white, to Type IV, off-white, tan and beige, the typical Mediterranean skin tone. Type V, dark brown, is the common Middle Eastern skin type, and Type VI is the deeply pigmented dark brown to black most common in Upper Egypt and Nubia and in much of Africa south of the Sahara.

Last week, Ivory Coast became the first country in the world to officially ban the use of skin-bleaching agents. Nigeria has the highest percentage of women using skin-bleaching creams in the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77 per cent of Nigerian women use skin-lightening products. Some 60 per cent of Togolese women and 27 per cent of Senegalese women also use skin-bleaching products. Statistics are not available for most African and Arab countries, including Egypt.

It is often assumed that this questionable and sometimes dangerous practice, a desperate search for “beauty,” is restricted to Africa south of the Sahara and among African-Americans. Yet, women in much of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, use skin-lightening creams.

Advertising for skin-lightening creams is among the most common in the country. In Egypt, most skin-bleaching creams are bought over the counter in pharmacies and beauty salons. The so-called “fade creams”, “bleaching bath milks”, and “whitening soaps” are the most common, and their use is an ancient practice in the country. Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last Ptolemaic queen of ancient Egypt, was reputed to bathe regularly in bleaching bath milks.

Hydroquinone is the active ingredient in most skin lighteners. “Some of my patients suffer from vitiligo,” Rasheed told the Weekly. “This is a chronic skin condition characterised by portions of the skin losing their pigment, and it is often given as an excuse to whiten the rest of the skin, as was the case for the late Michael Jackson.

“The danger is that the skin-bleaching creams do not treat the vitiligo, which is closely related to changes in the immune system and again is often caused by excessive use of cortisone,” Rasheed added. “Moreover, the skin-bleaching creams might compound the problem and even lead to cancer, eczema, or renal failure because of the presence of mercury in some of the products that are most widely used.”

Exogenous ochronosis, an unsightly splotchy pigmentation, is another reason for not using skin-lightening creams. The skin lightener called glutathione, a very potent antioxidant naturally found in the body, is equally dangerous.

Contrary to received wisdom, poorer women often use skin-bleaching creams more than do more wealthy women richer ones. “Poorer, working-class women are more likely than wealthier women to use skin-bleaching creams in Egypt. Many upper-class and aristocratic women have Turkish, Circassian, Balkan and other Caucasian origins and therefore have less incentive to bleach their skin,” Rasheed observed.

“I never felt the compulsion to use skin-lightening creams even though my two sisters are blonde and I am the darkest of my siblings. When I was young I used to play by the seaside and I got a very dark complexion. But I couldn’t have cared less. I was confident that I was beautiful in my own way,” one young woman, Leila, told the Weekly.

“I have to confess that I did use such creams in the past, especially as my skin tans very easily,” her friend Mirette admitted. “I have a cousin who had a complex about her dark skin and used to apply the creams not just on her face, but on her entire body as well,” another friend conceded.

“I was far darker than my sister, who was considered fair-skinned and beautiful by family and friends. I knew I was attractive, and I was never tempted to use skin bleaching creams,” Shahira Amin, former deputy head of the state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors, told the Weekly.

Some women, and an increasing number of men, want to lighten their skins. In Africa south of the Sahara, some may want to be the colour of the late Michael Jackson. North of the Sahara, some women aspire to look like the American film actress Marilyn Monroe.

Amin was widely acclaimed both nationally and internationally when she resigned from her position on 3 February 2011 because of her disapproval of the channel’s coverage of the 25 January Revolution.

When the present writer worked in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, some female colleagues used to speak of the “Fanta Coca-Cola” phenomenon. They would have a brighter future being lighter, they assumed. I had no idea what they were talking about, and they happily explained.

“Their faces, necks, hands and shoulders, the most exposed parts of the body, are the colour of Fanta, the orange-coloured soft drink. Other less exposed parts are as black as Coca-Cola,” a friend chuckled. She was proud to be black and beautiful.

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