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About Eritrea - History & Culture

An Exploration of Skin Lightening in Eritrea

The following is a brief summary of a newly published article on skin lightening in Eritrea, a topic of increasing importance and great relevance in the country, particularly amongst adolescents and youth.

A centuries old practice, skin lightening, also sometimes referred to as “skin bleaching,” “skin brightening,” “skin fading,” and “skin whitening,” is the use of injections, topical ointments, creams, lotions, gels, soaps, oral formulations, and household chemicals to de-pigment or lighten skin complexion, produce an even skin tone, and remove blemishes, freckles, or scars (de Souza 2008: 28; Jablonski 2012; Street, Gaska, Lewis, and Wilson 2014: 53). Today, skin lightening is a multi-billion dollar, globalized industry, and over the past several decades it has emerged as an increasingly popular practice in many parts of the world (Charles 2003; Coopernov 2016; Glenn 2008).

Skin lightening products often contain active ingredients, such as hydroquinone, mercury, lead, or corticosteroids, which break down the top layer of skin to lighten skin or disrupt and impede the synthesis and production of melanin, a natural pigment which defines skin color. The application or use of skin lightening products may be daily (or less frequently), and may be to the face, neck, hands, or to other parts of the body. While skin lightening is practiced by both genders, research suggests that it is more prevalent among females (Counter and Buchanan 2004; Fokuo 2009; Hunter 2011: 143; James et al. 2016).

Although skin lightening is a centuries old practice, it has increased in recent years (Charles 2003; Del Giudice and Yves 2002; Hunter 2011: 153; Jablonski 2012; Lewis et al. 2013; Oumeish 2001). Currently, skin lightening is quite popular within the Caribbean, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and among dark-skinned populations within Europe and North America (Charles 2003; Coopernov 2016; Glenn 2008). Notably, across much of Africa, skin lightening has “reached epidemic levels” (Hunter 2011: 143).

Despite its global popularity, skin lightening is a dangerous practice associated with a range of serious health consequences and problems. The dangers associated with skin lightening include severe skin conditions, including eczema, warts, acne, and ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade (Adebajo 2002; Ajose 2005; Lewis et al. 2011; Street et al. 2014: 63). As well, skin lightening may cause irreversible thinning of the skin, irritation and rashes, skin lesions, blistering, scabs, scarring, stretch marks, severe discoloration, and a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections (Ajose 2005; de Souza 2008; Durosaro et al. 2012: 43). Other problems associated with skin lightening include kidney damage, hypertension, elevated blood sugar, immunosuppression, mercury poisoning, and the risk of cancer.

Furthermore, although skin lightening products have been banned or heavily regulated in many countries, they often remain easily accessible over-the-counter or available via black market, unregulated channels, including from roadside vendors, within market districts and backstreets, and on the Internet (Ahmed and Hamid 2017; de Souza 2008: 28; Keane et al. 2001). According to the extensive literature on the topic, there are many different reasons that individuals may seek to lighten their skin, including socially constructed perceptions of beauty and attraction, status and class, job market competitiveness, the power of mass media and marketing, and racism, colorism, slavery, and colonialism (Hunter 2011: 149).

While a growing body of literature has explored skin lightening around the world, increasing understanding, to date, there have been no formal studies investigating skin lightening in Eritrea. Accordingly, my recent research helps to fill the void by exploring the practice of skin lightening in Eritrea, and also examining attitudes, knowledge, and perceptions surrounding the practice. Throughout 2017, I utilized a variety of research methods to collect data, including anonymous survey questionnaires from undergraduate students, in-depth, semi-structured interviews with individuals, households, and key informants across Eritrea, and numerous informal conversations and focus group discussions. Significantly, my research provides an important baseline for the current practice of skin lightening in the country, helping to reveal associated factors and ultimately contributing to and supplementing existing literature.

Furthermore, my findings help to increase general awareness about the dangers of skin lightening, and also may encourage the development of appropriate prevention and intervention efforts or campaigns.

In brief, findings from my research in Eritrea suggest that skin lightening is increasingly popular in the country and many individuals, particularly females, engage in the practice. Of note, the prevalence of skin lightening is considerably less than reported findings from other African countries. Additionally, as with many other countries, skin lightening in Eritrea is associated with a number of different factors. Given the prevalence of unsafe lightening products marketed and sold in Eritrea, combined with the fact that many people are not fully aware of the dangers of lightening products, there is a need to increase public awareness of the significant health risks associated with their use. Ultimately, skin lightening in Eritrea is a topic of increasing importance and great relevance, particularly amongst adolescents and youth, and further study and more attention are merited.

Full article is available from The Journal of Pan African Studies (California, USA), through http://www.jpanafrican. org/vol11no1.htm