Dark side of skin light­en­ing prod­ucts

Can cause ir­re­versible dam­age to the epi­der­mis

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SHAIN GERMANER

IT TOOK a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions be­fore doc­u­men­tary film-maker Ler­ato Mban­geni be­came con­vinced the use of skin light­en­ing prod­ucts was a se­ri­ous so­ci­etal is­sue.

That’s be­cause when she was grow­ing up, the wide­spread use of these prod­ucts seemed to be a norm in black com­mu­ni­ties.

It was only while work­ing with US jour­nal­ist Susie Neil­son two years ago that she started ques­tion­ing so­ci­ety’s ob­ses­sive quest for per­fect – and lighter – skin.

Mban­geni ini­tially thought users of skin light­en­ing creams were try­ing to “in­crease their prox­im­ity to white­ness”: that by be­com­ing lighter, they would be bet­ter re­spected in both white and black com­mu­ni­ties.

But as the pair be­gan their re­search, they re­alised that South African women – and some men – have an even more com­plex re­la­tion­ship with skin prod­ucts.

It’s this love/hate re­la­tion­ship that forms the foun­da­tion of their poignant doc­u­men­tary, A Gen­tle Magic, a ti­tle that func­tions as a play on one of the more fa­mous skin-light­en­ing creams in South Africa.

The doc­u­men­tary held its first screen­ing last week at the Bio­scope In­de­pen­dent Cin­ema in Jo­han­nes­burg.

Mban­geni, Neil­son, pro­ducer Graeme Aegerter and co- di­rec­tor Tseliso Mon­a­heng trav­elled across South Africa, in­ter­view­ing women in ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas to un­der­stand why they use skin light­en­ing prod­ucts.

Pro­fes­sor Ncoza Dlova, a der­ma­tol­o­gist and chief spe­cial­ist and head of the depart­ment of der­ma­tol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal, was in­te­gral to the re­search.

Her work has of­ten fo­cused on the dam­age caused by skin- bleach­ing prod­ucts – she spear­headed a na­tional cam­paign against their use last year.

The doc­u­men­tary’s ini­tial fo­cus is the ex­am­i­na­tion of Mban­geni’s hy­poth­e­sis – that so­ci­ety pres­sures black women to ap­pear lighter and that this is con­sid­ered more at­trac­tive and likely to gar­ner more re­spect.

In­ter­views with uni­ver­sity stu­dents, artists, writ­ers and sa­lon own­ers in Cape Town and Joburg seem to con­firm this, with many re­count­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences us­ing light­en­ers.

For this group, the ef­fects of the creams were of­ten sub­stan­tial, and they noted the dif­fer­ing re­ac­tions they would get from their peers and fam­ily – mostly com­pli­men­tary.

One stu­dent said she had been told she was “fi­nally blos­som­ing”, while an­other had been ridiculed by her fa­ther be­cause her skin had light­ened so dras­ti­cally.

A group in­ter­view with more than a dozen women at the Uni­ver­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal re­vealed how many rely on these prod­ucts to clear up acne, to even out their skin tone or sim­ply be­cause they are fol­low­ing their moth­ers’ ex­am­ple.

One sub­ject, Nokuthula, whose face is pale from years of use, said even with the dam­age done to her skin, she would never stop.

The prod­ucts were the only things that stopped the oili­ness in her skin and she felt more con­fi­dent when her acne had van­ished.

“I was dark be­fore; I got used to it. When the oint­ment the doc­tor had given me got fin­ished, I then no­ticed other women who were light-skinned and asked one woman what she used. She said she was us­ing Ex­tra Claire. I then bought it and still use it to this day.”

A sig­nif­i­cant part of the doc­u­men­tary, set in a small vil­lage in Cof­fee Bay, re­veals that the prod­ucts are mostly used to com­bat pim­ples, even by men in the area.

“These are women who are so re­moved from our city lives,” Mban­geni pointed out. “They don’t con­sume the same or the same amount of me­dia we do. So they’re not nec­es­sar­ily see­ing the same level of pres­sure to be lighter.

“But they still use the same prod­ucts, the same way some­one in Joburg will buy a R25 con­tainer on the side of the street.

“I was so sur­prised by the com­plex re­la­tion­ships (these women) had with the prod­ucts. The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who use them, are us­ing them for skin con­di­tions.”

How­ever, the dis­com­fort and pain these prod­ucts can cause is a thread that runs through the film.

Dlova’s ap­pear­ance in the doc­u­men­tary re­in­forces the mes­sage that it is far bet­ter to con­sult with a skin doc­tor.

“These creams can cause ir­re­versible thin­ning of the skin, ir­re­versible stretch marks, rapid age­ing, skin in­fec­tions, steroid-in­duced acne, per­ma­nent dark marks and skin can­cer,” she said.

Many of her pa­tients have suf­fered a va­ri­ety of neg­a­tive re­ac­tions. “Some side ef­fects may be ir­re­versible.

“I nor­mally re­fer to the skin be­ing ad­dicted and crav­ing for the dan­ger­ous creams. Pa­tients usu­ally look great in the first six months or so, but down the line the skin con­di­tions be­gins to change slowly for the worse.” Why do women use these prod­ucts? “Our study showed that 35% use them be­cause of so­ci­etal pres­sure and some is­sues re­lated to low self-es­teem,” Dlova said.

“About 65% used these as self med­i­ca­tion for gen­uine skin-re­lated con­di­tions such as acne and pig­men­ta­tion for which pa­tients are ad­vised to seek a der­ma­tol­o­gist’s opin­ion.”

How­ever, the seem­ing “ad­dic­tion” that many pa­tients have to these prod­ucts is con­cern­ing and doc­tors must be aware of how to en­sure that those they con­sult do not re­vert back to the prod­uct, she warned.

“We also teach them that the best skin is the dark skin.”

It’s be­cause of the po­ten­tial dan­gers of these prod­ucts that the film- mak­ers have made it their mis­sion to try to reach a younger au­di­ence.

Those be­hind the film are look­ing into film fes­ti­vals to screen the doc­u­men­tary, as well as ar­range screen­ings in all the lo­ca­tions where it was filmed to al­low their in­ter­view sub­jects to see the work, said Mban­geni.

Con­tact the team for screen­ings at su­sanc­neil­son@gmail.com.


Di­rec­tors of A Gen­tle Magic, Ler­ato Mban­geni and Tseliso Mon­a­heng, at the first screen­ing of the film at the Bio­scope In­de­pen­dent The­atre in Mabo­neng.

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