Jayne Augoye examines a World Health Organisation’s report classifying Nigerians as major users of skin lightening products.
A World Health Organisation report on the danger of mercury in skin lightening soaps and creams has revealed that over 77 per cent of Nigerians use such products on a regular basis.
The report, published this month by the organisation on its website, further shows that it is followed by Togo with 59 per cent; South Africa, 35 per cent; and Mali, 25 per cent.
In a similar vein, the organisation has issued a warning against skin lightening soaps, creams and cosmetics like eye makeup, cleansing products and mascara, saying they could be containing mercury.
It cites the adverse effects of inorganic mercury — a common ingredient found in skin lightening soaps and creams. The effects include kidney damage, reduction in the skin resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.
Others are skin rashes, swelling of the skin, irritation, seizures, numbness, pain tremors and memory loss. According to WHO, once the chemicals get absorbed into the skin and enter the blood stream, the complications are worse.
Carolyn Vickers of WHO Chemical Safety Department says, “Mercury in soaps and creams eventually enters waste water and then enters the food chain as highly toxic methyl mercury.
“The mercury enters environment, where it becomes methylated, and enters the food chain as highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their foetuses that can later result in neurological deficits in children,” the report states.
It adds that lightening soaps and creams are commonly used in some African and Asian nations and dark-skinned populations in Europe and North America. Mercury salts work by inhibiting the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.
It is also reported that some women use these products for as long as 20 years. The number is growing by the day. Ehowhow.com says “ It is generally believed that this practice is influenced by deep racial inferiority, ignorance of identity or a crisis of identity but it is important to note that there is more to it than this. For some of the women, skin lightening satisfies their need for attention, their desire for beauty as seen in magazines where models and celebrities have light colored skin. It can be seen as perpetuating the colonial belief that being lighter is better.”
In many countries, this deadly substance has been banned.
“Some manufacturers are no longer using mercury as a preservative in mascara and eye makeup cleansing products as a result of consumer pressure. However, most jurisdictions still allow the sale of makeup products containing mercury compounds. The soaps contain approximately one to three per cent mercury iodide, and the creams are composed of one to 10 per cent mercury ammonium. It is imperative to check for mercury content on the packaging of the soaps, creams or other cosmetics before getting hooked to them,” the report says.
Part of the consolation, however, is that despite a deliberate ploy by some manufacturers to conceal the presence of mercury in their products, there are a few ways by which consumers can confirm when in doubt.
According to WHO, the amount or concentration of mercury in a product may be labelled on the packaging or in the ingredient list. Names to look for include mercury, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, ammoniated mercury, amide chloride of mercury, quicksilver, cinnabaris, hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide) and mercury iodide.
Skin lightening products are manufactured in many countries like China, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the USA.
These products come in different forms, including soaps and creams; the soap is often sold as “antiseptic soap”. These products are supposed to be applied to the skin to dry overnight. Women use the soap to wash their hair, arms or face or their entire body. Products with very high levels of mercury contamination look grey or cream coloured.
When the product manual reads, “Directions to avoid contact with silver, gold, rubber, aluminum and jewellery’’, this may indicate the presence of mercury. However, it is important to note that companies selling products that contain mercury do not always list it as an ingredient.