Dying to be whiter: The black women who risk their lives for lighter skin
By PAUL BRACCHI
On sale in the high street in Harlesden, North-West London, yesterday was a face cream called Maxi White.
“Could there be a less subtle name for a product aimed at black and Asian women desperate to lighten the colour of their skin? Indeed, those who purchase the £4.79 gel are guaranteed results almost overnight.
“It worked quite well to start with,” said one customer. “But as I carried on using it, my skin became thin and dehydrated. If I moved my mouth, my whole skin moved, too. My forehead looked like a crinkled up piece of paper it was so cracked.
“Then, ugly blotches which developed into boils and ulcers started appearing on my face. I was a complete mess.”
The reason can be found in the list of ingredients on the back of the Maxi White packet; one is called hydroquinone – which is as nasty as it sounds; the biological equivalent, in fact, of paint stripper.
It not only removes the top layer of skin, which initially results in a “brighter face”, but also the body’s natural defence against infection and the sun, thus increasing the risk of skin cancer.
If the chemical – which is used in certain industrial processes – enters your bloodstream, it can cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Other side effects include headaches, nausea, convulsions and permanent scarring.
It is illegal to use hydroquinone in cosmetics.
This month, a couple who made more than £1 million selling toxic skinlightening creams from two outlets in Peckham, South London, were ordered to pay costs and fines totalling £100,000.
But a spokeswoman for the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) admitted: “No sooner do you shut one place down than another springs up.”
Maxi White, and other banned brands containing harmful steroids, are available under – and over – the counter all across the country. A Mail investigation found them on sale from Brixton to Birmingham (one of the shops featured in our investigation was raided by Trading Standards officers yesterday).
Behind such names as “Maxi White”, “Sure White”, “Fair & White” and “Skin White” is a multi-million-pound industry – and an untold story of exploitation and racism within the black community itself.
It’s a taboo subject, but a cruel racial hierarchy still exists in Britain where the lighter-skinned Jamaican, for example, is “superior” to the darker skinned Nigerian; where light brown is preferable to dark brown. Dark skin means failure; light skin is beautiful and equates to success.
One young woman we spoke to told how she decided to have her skin bleached after being teased and bullied at school (she was called “blackie” by paler-skinned Jamaican girls). There are reports that some parents are even “bleaching” their children
It is an attitude all too familiar to Sherry Dixon, editor-at-large of Pride, the lifestyle magazine for the British black community, and reinforced by the complaints that flood in from female readers whenever a woman with strong African features – such as dark hair, broad nose, and tightly curled hair – appears on the cover.
“It’s cultural racism, or shade-ism as I call it,” she says.
The most photographed – and admired – black women ( Beyonce, Halle Berry, Naomi Campbell, Iman) are all Westernised, of course, whether by their fairer skin or European features.
The legacy of such stereotyping can be found in any shop or market stall specialising in black hair and skin products; “Black is Beautiful” was the old slogan, but shelves are bulging with creams and lotions promising a “brighter face”.
Not all are harmful; nevertheless they promote the image – intentionally or otherwise – that blackness is something to be ashamed of, and whiteness revered.
Southwark Trading Standards officers, who were involved in the Peckham prosecution, have a list of nearly 100 banned cosmetics seized from outlets in the borough over the past few years, including some that contained poisonous mercuric iodide, which can cause organ failure, vomiting and depression.
The New Nation newspaper has carried out its own investigation into the scandal. Among the shops it found selling dangerous concoctions was Mona Cosmetics in Harlesden, where reporter Lorraine King purchased Maxi White (Strong Formula).
This week, Miss King went to Brixton for the Mail. There, she was able to buy Mic Medicated Skin Litener Cream (“Maximum Strength”) which is on the trading standards banned list. Like Maxi White, it contains potentially deadly hydroquinone, and was on sale at the Afro Beauty Shop in Electric Avenue for 99p.
Trading standards officials from Lambeth Council, acting on a tip-off from the Mail, arrived to carry out a search of the premises yesterday.
Owners Mohammed Latif, 48, and his brother Wasim Hussain, 28, initially denied selling any of the creams.
Boxes of Mic skin whitener were later confiscated; the brothers were cautioned and could be prosecuted.
In another part of the country, at Beauty Queen in Soho Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, there are aisles brimming with “exotic” products.
But when a Mail reporter asked for a “stronger” lightening cream (a universally understood euphemism for illegal bleaching creams) the man behind the counter produced a tube of cream stashed in a fuse box in the corner of the store. It cost £1.99 and was called Movate. One of its active ingredients is the steroid known as clobetasol propionate.
The compound is not banned in this country but such is its potency that it can only be used as a licensed prescription drug to treat extreme skin conditions. Movate was also sold at nearby MJ News.
Electric Avenue in Brixton or Rye Lane in Peckham and Soho Road in Handsworth are the last links in a criminal chain which begins thousands of miles away in Africa or the Middle East, where such lightening products are freely available.
They are either smuggled into Britain in hand luggage or hidden in freight. Two of the biggest ever hauls, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, were discovered at Gatwick airport in 2005.
More than 46,000 tubes were found in cargo from Lagos in Nigeria, labelled “body cream”, destined for a warehouse in North London. Shortly afterwards, customs seized thousands of products containing hydroquinone from West Africa, marked “foodstuffs.”
Some unscrupulous traders travel abroad to obtain the ingredients – including hydroquinone – themselves.
“They mix these drugs together in a bowl in the back of their shop then sell them in plain jars when customers ask for something “stronger” than the products on display,” says Sara Coakley of the MHRA.
“We have had reports of parents giving these creams to their children, which is very worrying because children have weaker immune systems and these creams can be fatal.”
It is almost impossible to believe, given the widespread publicity such products have attracted, that the people who peddle this poisonous rubbish, if not customers themselves, can be unaware of the dangers.
Trading Standards officials in Southwark have flooded the borough with leaflets highlighting the dangers and the consequences of breaking the law, which can result in a six-month prison sentence.
The leaflet asks: “Sale of illegal products -IS IT WORTH IT?”
The answer can be found in a treelined avenue in Sydenham, South-East London, where Yinka and Michael Oluyemi live in an £800,000 six-bedroom mock tudor house with wooden floors and Persian rugs. Yesterday, a BMW and Mercedes were parked on the drive.
Yinka, 46, and her husband Michael, 49 – who ran Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express in Peckham – evidently found handsome rewards from the skin-lightening business. This week, however, they were given suspended prison sentences after admitting ten charges of flouting medical and safety rules.
The Oluyemis are just the latest people to be prosecuted for selling banned cosmetic potions.
In 2006, another “cosmetics” company, Ace Afro Hair And Beauty, which has a store in Brixton, was fined £50,000, for similar offences. Hassan Akhtar, 49, who drives a Mercedes, runs the business – which has a £ 1million turnover – with his wife Nasira, 46, and their son Mubashir, 25. The family live in a £400,000 house in South-West London.
“These creams cost peanuts in Africa – a few pence maybe – and then sell for up to £5 here,” says Ray Bouch, senior Trading Standards officer for Lambeth. “The mark-up is huge.”
How many black women use such creams? It is impossible to say, but clearly many do. “I first started using them because I had spots and I thought they would help,” said Marilyn, a hairdresser in her 20s.
Her acne did indeed clear up. But Marilyn continued using these dangerous cosmetics for another two years because “people began asking me why I looked so ‘bright and pretty?’
“I remember using one that burns when you put it on. I would have to sit down and fan myself. Then I watched a programme about skin bleaching in Africa. It was terrible. It showed people with serious skin deformities and tumours. I knew I had to stop. I’d just had a baby and I didn’t want him coming into contact with the chemicals on my face.
“I have stopped bleaching my skin but there are so many girls I know who are still doing it. In the dance hall scene, if you don’t bleach your skin you’re not cool. I see some girls with brown faces who still have black hands – it’s horrible.
“But it’s very addictive,” she admits. “I have a relative who bleaches her entire body. She goes down to Brixton market and buys massive tubs. Her whole body is light except for her knuckles, elbows, knees and toes. She looks ridiculous.
“When I stopped using these creams, my face became dark again. I don’t care because I’m lucky and have not suffered permanent damage.”
The peer – and indeed cultural – pressure which would persuade someone to apply a cream which contains hydroquinone or powerful steroids is graphically illustrated by the case of Melissa Barnet. Melissa, who is in her late 20s, is the daughter of a Nigerian nurse and businessman from North London. She began using bleaching creams in 2000 after being bullied at school.
“Throughout my childhood it just wasn’t ‘cool’ to be African or darkskinned, and every day when I walked through the gates of my all-girls secondary school I was reminded of this cruel racial hierarchy,” she says.
“Being a lighter-skinned Jamaican made you superior to anyone darker or African.
“There were nights when I would sit in the bath chanting ‘I hate myself’ while frantically scrubbing my skin with soap. Other times I would scribble notes to myself saying dreadful things like: ‘Why are you so ugly?’ or ‘Why do you have to be so black?’
“Nor did it help that all the best-looking black boys would only date a girl if they were light-skinned, and vice versa. I lost count of the times I heard the attractive Jamaican girls dismiss the idea of going out with a dark-skinned African boy because he was considered beneath them. Statements such as ‘he’s a monkey’, ‘far too black’ and ‘ugly’ were commonplace.”
Eventually, Melissa experimented with the most potent bleaching soap containing hydroquinone in a bid to make herself more “beautiful”. Her skin became noticeably lighter and for the first time in her life she felt “confident and attractive”.
It didn’t last long. Within six months, she began to suffer the inevitable side-effects – unsightly dark patches appeared on her face and she realised she had to stop. Fortunately, her skin recovered, though some scars were still visible on her cheeks months later.
Like Marilyn, the hairdresser who began using skin-lightening creams, Melissa, a former office worker, was lucky. Some of the women who turn up at dermatologist Sujata Jolly’s clinic in Maidenhead are not.
“One patient was in a very bad way,” she recalls. “Her skin was dark, lumpy and blotchy and had cracked open. The blood vessels had ruptured and you could see blood through the cracks.”
Could there be a more chilling example of the dangers of products like Maxi White?
The cultural racism which resulted in that poor woman being treated by Sujata Jolly is reinforced by companies such as Elizabeth Arden on the Indian sub-continent. The face of the firm’s “whitening skincare” range is Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The creams are harmless but the message, you might agree, is the same. “Women everywhere want radiant, translucent skin.”
Another advert, by British manufacturing giant Unilever, which markets several whitening products in India, shows a young Indian woman dreaming of being famous, but her skin is too brown.
One day her sister hands her a tube of Fair And Lovely skin cream. Then the advert flashes forward and she is wearing high heels and her hair is curled. Most important, her complexion has changed dramatically; she is pale and has landed her dream job.
But dreams don’t always come true – as many black women have discovered after buying a tube of Maxi White on the streets of Harlesden and Handsworth.(dailymail.co.uk)