Skin Bleaching: A Perspective on the Ghanaian Phenomenon

We are pleased to introduce this guest post from Samuel Adu-Gyamfi (mcgyamfi@yahoo.com) of the Department of History and Political Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and Razak Mohammed Gyasi of the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

Carotone

Background and Approach

Skin bleaching is the intentional alteration of one’s natural skin colour to one relatively, if not substantially lighter in colour, through the use of chemical skin lightening agents, either manufactured, homemade or the combination of the two as defined by The World Health Organization (Konlan 2016). Knowledge of the history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint, but in its current manifestations, skin bleaching is practiced disproportionately within communities ‘of colour’ (Yaba 2011, 4).

Situated within the first wave of the African independence movements, skin bleaching surfaced as an increasingly popular cosmetic practice as early as the late 1950s and is currently widespread. According to the 2005 Ghana Health Service report, approximately 30% of Ghanaian women and 5% of Ghanaian men were actively bleaching. The same statistic indicates that currently, 50% to 60% of adult Ghanaian women are currently or have at one time or the other actively used bleaching agents (Konlan 2016). The reasons for the upsurge of this phenomenon include the following: memories of historical overtones of colonization, slavery, discrimination, and better job opportunities, executive positions and chances in beauty uphold the supremacy of the white skin (Miyanji de Souza 2008).

The aim for this contribution is to highlight the history of skin bleaching in Ghana from the colonial times to 2000 and focus attention on the perceptions and attitude of Ghanaians concerning the push factor that has driven some members of the society into bleaching as well as the needed efforts of state agencies and civil society to deal with the ever increasing challenge.

Studies on Ghana show that people bleach because of the notion of having too dark skin, seeing the act as fashionable and trendy, gaining social acceptance and superiority which are sometimes instigated by peer influence, the need to get some societal acceptance among peers and the attraction of potential suitors, amongst other various reasons. In our recent study into the subject matter of bleaching, two eclectic cities, Accra and Kumasi were selected; a sample of one hundred people responded to open-ended questionnaires. Expert knowledge was also sought from key informants in the field of dermatology at the Accra and Kumasi area of Ghana. Oral and written sources have been used in each instance as a corroborative tool for each other. This report highlights the findings of an in-depth study we have done on bleaching in Ghana. The history and the voices of actors have been allowed to stay in this particular perspective.

Reporting the Ghanaian Case

From post-colonial times to the new millennium, two main methods have been employed for bleaching the skin. These are the use of bleach soaps and dominantly, the use of skin bleaching creams. The use of skin bleaching soaps were largely used between 1957 and 1980; it began to subside by the end of 1980. According to Dr Edmund Delle who spoke on the history of skin bleaching in Ghana in an article published in the Weekly Spectator, ‘Skin bleaching was first practiced by Ghanaian women soon after the Second World War. This was around the late 1940s, when those who practiced the craft used Asepso and Neko as skin bleaching soaps’ (interviewed in Dorkenoo 1990, 2; see Arthur 2002). At the dawn of the 1990s, a lot of skin bleaching creams had been introduced in the Ghanaian market and had come to replace the use of bleaching soaps. By the end of the twentieth century, skin bleaching soaps had died out and skin bleaching creams were the mainstay of the multimillion bleaching industry with respect to cosmetics and products.

Informants with expert knowledge who reported on creams argued that patients who came to them with skin and other related complications due to bleaching reported on and also showed the use of creams with high doses of hydroquinone, mercury among others. These had caused ‘Erythema, permanent leukoderma, skin irritation, contact dermatitis, pigmented colloid millium, nail pigmentation or discoloration, loss of skin elasticity, impaired wound healing, hypopigmentation of the surrounding normal skin’. The common adverse findings reported include ‘kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration, scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis, peripheral neuropathy etc.’ (Aryee-Boi, personal communication).

The Ghana Standards Authority (GSA), formerly known as Ghana Standards Board which was established by the Standards Decree, 1967 (NLCD 199) and was superseded by the Standards Decree, 1973 (NRCD 173) is also the custodian of the Weights and Measures decree (NRCD 326, 1975. The Ghana Standards Authority has a mission among other things to promote standardization for the improvement of the quality of goods, services and sound management practices in industries and public institutions in Ghana’. The Ghana Food and Drugs Authority on the other hand ‘is the National Regulatory Body responsible for the regulation of food, drugs, food supplements, herbal and homeopathic medicines, veterinary medicines, cosmetics, medical devices, household chemical substances, tobacco and tobacco products and the conduct of clinical trials protocols’. The FDA was established in 1992 as the Food and Drugs Board (FDB) on the basis of the 1992 Food and Drugs Law (PNDCL 305B), later amended by the Food and Drugs Act of 1996’. Thus, the Ghana Standards Authority had been in operation long before the establishment of the Ghana Food and Drugs Authority. However, these two national institutions vary in their work although they work hand-in-hand to ensure consumer safety on products and items accessible to the Ghanaian populace including cosmetic products. In an interview with Madam Frances, the head of the cosmetic testing lab at Ghana Standards Authority, she elaborates on the process a cosmetic product goes through as a requirement at the Standards Authority in validating a standard for the cosmetic product. Elaborating further on that of cosmetic creams in Ghana, she further explains that:

If someone produces a cream, they bring it to us and we do a quality evaluation to know if it meets our standards. The standard for products are not set alone by the Ghana Standards Board. The standard for a product is deliberated on by a committee of stakeholders like manufacturers, who deliberate and come to an agreement that all creams in Ghana would agree to a particular standard and must meet that standard. The sample is brought and tested and if it meets the standard, we send the results to FDA for the product to be registered. So FDA gets to know that product A is registered but with time, they go back to the market and do a market survey, get the product and test again because some clients knowing that they are bringing their products to be tested, bring the best, do the registration and the product is allowed on the market. Because the product is expensive, they find it difficult in doing the right thing. They manufacture the cheap products after the product is approved in order to make their profits.

Essentially, the work of the GSA and FDA complement each other to ensure consumer safety in Ghana. Although the operations of the GSA and FDA have been well scripted by a policy document and had seen some successes, the issue of bleaching is still a dilemma. For example, the amount of hydroquinone in creams as an ingredient in cosmetic products have been banned, but as a drug, 2% is allowed and should only be sold by a pharmacist and with a prescription from a doctor. My expert informant acknowledged that public sensitization and education has been very low so most people don’t know about the decisions and regulatory framework and cautions given by the GSA on cosmetic products. Also, the work of the GSA and FDA is made difficult by manufacturers who because of profit go contrary to regulations by these institutions.

It can be noted that the post-colonial period was a young and nurturing stage for the phenomenon. Thus, the attention of the Ghanaian was not drawn to the effects of skin bleaching and this resulted to less public concern and reaction. The very few Ghanaians who talked about the ills of skin bleaching were individuals who were highly informed about the effects of the practice. The practice of skin bleaching thus grew so much that by 1987, it attracted attention from journalist Tom Dorkenoo:

Ghana is world leader in skin bleaching, having come second to South Africa in the game… Between 1987 and February 1989 when the light skin and half cast advertisement appeared in the paper, only four [sic] public figures apart from Dr Delle publicly spoke against the dangers of the disgrace of skin bleaching. These are Lt-General Arnold Quainoo, the General officer commanding the Ghana Armed Forces, Mrs Selina Taylor, Chairperson of the National Council on Women and Development, Mrs Esi Sutherland-Addy, the Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Education and Culture, Efua T. Sutherland, Chairperson of Ghana National Commission on Children and Dr G. L. Boye, Director at the Mampong Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine. While the 14 million strong all seem to be suffering from the effects of the “new-fangled” phrase which has almost become a cliché — THE CULTURE OF SILENCE on the skin bleaching issue (Dorkenoo 1989).

This is as late as 1987–1989 when the practice of skin bleaching had become widespread in the country. This can be attributed to the fact that a lot of people back then did not understand the effects of the practice. However, the Ghanaian perception and attitude changed upon the realization of the effects of skin bleaching. The popular term ‘Fanta face, Coca-Cola body’ became the common name for skin bleachers (Dorkenoo 1998a).

In August 1998, perceptions of some Ghanaians were documented by Tom Dorkenoo and published in the Weekly Spectator. Ivy OdeiTetteh, a pharmacist at Kaneshie hinted that, ‘the problems with skin bleaching sometimes lie with men. Some men like light skinned women and when they don’t get such women, they ask their dark skinned women to bleach their skin.’ Comfort Docey, a nursing sister at Korle Bu hinted, ‘Skin bleaching is not good for the health, especially for pregnant women. Apart from causing skin cancer, it can cause intrauterine death, which is a situation where babies dry up in the wombs of their mothers.’ Ken Nunoo, a journalist thinks that, ‘people who bleach the body are those without confidence. They suffer from inferiority complex and so they want to look like others with lighter skins because they think that men prefer those ones’ (Dorkenoo 1998b). These twentieth-century voices resonate with twenty-first century Ghana.

Twenty-first-century television documentaries on the ill effects of bleaching in Ghana have made some gains in the country. Media houses such as TV3, GTV among others, through their interviews with health professionals and skin bleachers have created awareness and continue to raise the consciousness of Ghanaians concerning the adverse effects of skin bleaching. Documentaries by various individuals, groups and interested stakeholders have been run on skin bleaching to create awareness. Movie production houses are beginning to write scripts and act them to discourage the practice. A movie entitled Black Barbie written and directed by Comfort Arthur who was a one-time skin bleacher who stopped bleaching shortly after starting has also educated the public on the dangers of skin bleaching (Gyamfi Asiedu 2016/7). Campaigns on skin bleaching by some prominent Ghanaians such as Ama K. Abebrese and Nana AmaMcBrown who are actresses, Paulina Oduro, a veteran musician and Hamamat Monita, a model through their campaign have addressed skin bleaching and its dangers. Television shows such as The DELAY Show have also made good efforts to highlight why people bleach. One such interview on the show was the interview with Nasara who won the Ghana’s Most Beautiful pageant organised by TV3 in 2009 but had resorted to bleaching her skin. Health programs have also been aired to address skin bleaching and its effects and to educate the Ghanaian populace on its dangers. Lastly, some musicians have done exclusive pieces of lyrical education on skin bleaching. One such is Okuntakinte, a young musician who finds the practice dangerous enough to address it through his music in a song he calls, ‘Melanin Girls’.

Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1963, highlighted that people of colour would continue to face discrimination until ‘the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation …until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes… until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race…’ In 2016 the Ghanaian FDA banned the sale of skin bleaching products containing hydroquinone. But until the individual Ghanaian knows that black is beautiful and colour does not matter, that the skin must be taken good care of for both psychological and social well-being, draconian laws and draconian rules will fail in achieving the ends of stopping the last bleacher.

 

References

Arthur, Sylvia, 2002. The new skin bleaching phenomenon. www.ghanaweb.com, 7 March.

Aryee–Boi, Jeannette, personal communication. A Cosmetic Choice with consequences: Skin Bleaching.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1989. Skin Lightning Craze – Bleaching Has Done It At Last. Weekly Spectator, Thursday March 23: 2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1990. Boiled Crab Skins – The Bleaching Pandemic. Weekly Spectator [Ghana], Saturday, July 14: 2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1998a. Skin Bleaching – The Pandemic Is Here. Weekly Spectator, Saturday August 15:2.

Dorkenoo, Tom, 1998b. Skin Bleaching – What Ghanaians Say. Weekly Spectator, Saturday August 22:7.

Food And Drugs Authority, ‘About Us’,www.fdaghana.gov.gh, [accessed 30/03/17]

Ghana Standards Authority, ‘About Us’, www.gsa.gov.gh, [accessed 30/03/17]

Gyamfi Asiedu, Kwasi, 2016/7. Comfort used to bleach, now she has made a film about it. The Pulse, 20 December, refreshed 2 March 2017.

Konlan, Irene, 2016. Skin Bleaching: a silent killer of the youth of today. www.ghanaweb.com, 23rd September.

Miyanji de Souza, MD, Melanie, 2008. The concept of skin bleaching in Africa and its devastating health implications. Clinics in Dermatology 26.1: 27-29, online at http://ecommons.aku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=eastafrica_fhs_mc_intern_med [accessed 30/03/17]

Yaba, AmgboraleBlay, 2011. Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By way of Introduction. The Journal of Pan African Studies 4.4: 4-5.

 

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