How skin lightening takes its toll on your health


Walking around town will reveal just how low some women think of their natural black skin complexion. They strive to achieve a lighter skin complexion because they think that the lighter their skin complexions are, the better and probably more appealing they will look.

As such, skin bleaching continues to manifest itself in many black communities where even the supposedly lighter-looking women will go an extra mile to make themselves lighter.


Several women in Uganda use soaps and creams containing mercury to obtain a lighter complexion. NET PHOTO

Skin whitening, as offers, is a term covering a variety of cosmetic methods used to whiten the skin, in parts of East Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

The site adds that skin lightening or whitening is a controversial topic as it is closely intertwined with the detrimental effects on health, identity, self image and racial supremacy.

According to Dr Pius Okong, a health consultant with St Francis Hospital Nsambya, this remains a big problem he attributes to inferiority complex where women are not satisfied with the colour of their skins and therefore go out to try and achieve a light complexion which comes with a price to pay. In most cases, the products have found their way to shops unchecked yet the effects of the chemicals used in making (such) products like soaps and creams, as Dr. Vincent Karuhanga explains, have been found to have adverse effects on unborn children, women and men.

“Many of these bleaching agents contain steroids, hydroquinone and mercury which can affect the body as drugs do, given the fact that they interfere with the production of melanin- group of naturally occurring dark pigments, especially the pigment found in skin,” Dr Karuhanga elaborates.

In communities, the problem has not gone unattended to and last year, The International Anti-Corruption Theatre Movement (IATM), a pressure group against bleaching, indicated that thousands of women in Uganda use soaps containing mercury to obtain a lighter complexion without knowing the health hazards of using such soaps.

Mercury according to findings through Nordic Chemicals Group, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and Ms Uganda, causes a number of health problems such as skin cancer and nervous disorder.

Steroids, on the other hand, could cause diabetes given that they increase the amount of sugar metabolism in the body thus worsening the infection, Dr Karuhanga adds. He points out creams like Pimplex usually used to treat pimples, contain mercury which is reportedly poisonous.

According to, mercury-based bleaching creams contain ammoniated mercury or mercrous chloride as a bleaching agent. Some of these creams may contain up to more than 2-5 per cent mercury that will be harmful to health, therefore resulting in mercury poisoning, especially chronic mercury poisoning.

“In the Minimata epidemic in Japan, there were 42 brain-damaged children in 400 live births. Only one of the mothers had no sign of having mercury poisoning.

Majority of the mothers had used mercury-based bleaching creams during their childbearing years,” explains.

“The biggest problem is that by the time someone realises signs of the effects, the damage is already done.

The inferiority complex has also caught up with men and they have started bleaching their skins too,” Dr Karuhanga further explains, adding that the worst side effect victims could suffer would be worsened infections.

Mercury, he adds, can affect the kidney and nervous system while hydroquinone can damage the body nerves as well as the blood cells. Steroids have a pushing syndrome and can thus precipitate high blood pressure, diabetes and could cause acne.

However, that is not to say all bleaching agents have bad side effects. And as Dr Karuhanga and David Ssali, a dermatologist at Dama Medical Clinic agree, some herbal creams and soaps have been found to be good, given the fact that most are natural.

According to Ssali, for most people, the intention is not to bleach. They are looking for a good skin but with the continuous trials with different products, end up bleaching their skins unknowingly.

“People should be made aware of alternatives to achieving this (good skin). They could eat fruits like carrots, simsim and a variety of coloured fruits and vegetables,” Ssali who did not rule out skin cancer for continued use of skin products, adds.

“By using some of these products, you remove the natural pigment which makes the skin vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, opening the skin pores further which puts you at many health risks,” he warns.

According to the AAR Health services Kenya website, dermatologists caution that the treatment of skin conditions must be done strictly with the advice of the gynaecologists or dermatologists. In pregnant women, the unborn child is susceptible to medications, even those applied to the skin and great care must be taken.

In neighbouring Kenya, there has been a ban on bleaching creams with stringent laws and public campaigns have been launched to address the harmful effects of these products on the skin.

Much as effort has been taken to ban the importation of skin lightening creams, they are still in plenty and sold across the counter in most shops and on the roadside in Uganda.

Ideally, skin whitening could be advised to treat pigmentation (coloration of tissues by pigment) disorders like spotted skin tone, age spots, freckles- small, usually yellow or brown spots on the skin, often seen on the face and pregnancy marks.

AAR Health Services adds that an example of a circumstance under which a dermatologist could prescribe skin lighteners would be a situation when he detects altered skin colouring (pigmentation). A skin lightener may be prescribed for medical reasons.