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Lighten them young: The story of parents who ‘bleach’ their chidren

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Nigerian women are the highest users of products with mercury which causes the skin to lighten. Some Nigerian mothers are adding their children to this statistic because their children’s skins need to glow and to be a shade lighter. They therefore need to start early to achieve this goal.

These effects are more marked in young children because they may affect growth and development and may also cause permanent or irreversible damage to the affected body systems

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Mainstream and the social media was agog in 2018 with news about Ghanaian women taking bleaching pills to enable them give birth to light skinned babies.

There is a lot of craze about being light-skinned in Nigeria as well. The general belief is that light-skinned people are more attractive, especially the women. As a result, some mothers are prepping their children from as young as age two, regardless whether they are male or female, “to have glowing light skin” by ensuring their daily body lotions contain the agents to achieve this.

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Binta Umar, 40, has four daughters and a son between the ages of 12 and two. They bath with homemade soap mixed with skin whitening agents including citric acid, carotene, glutathione and kojic acid.

Their body cream is shea butter mixed with a popular body lotion with the words “body white” slammed on its label.

Responding to our reporter’s query as to why these were the products her children used including her two-year-old son, her response was, “I want to teach them how to take care of their skin. It needs to glow so I am starting early.”

Grace Olatunji and Walida Bello, are other mothers who share Binta’s belief and use skin lightening products on their under five children. The Abuja women who live blocks apart, said they tone down the effect of the bleaching agents by including shea butter to both the soap and body cream. “That way, it is not harsh on their skin,” Olatunji chipped in.

In a report – ‘Preventing Disease through Healthy Environment’ – the WHO said, 77 per cent of Nigerian women use such products on a regular basis. They are followed by those in Togo at 59 per cent, South Africa at 35 per cent and Mali at 25 per cent.

Dr Hauwa’u Makarfi, a paediatric dermatologist, at the Ahmadu Bello University Hospital Zaria, cautions against the use of body products with skin lightening or toning agents in them, and especially not for children.

She said, “The effects of skin lightening or toning products are numerous, ranging from local effects which are visible on the skin, to serious systemic effects within the body and cannot be seen.”

The latter, she said are often the more dangerous and irreversible side effects because these products contain chemicals like mercury and hydroquinone which are dangerous to the body even in small quantities. Such products also contain steroids and sometimes in large amounts that can lead to adverse systemic effects. The systemic effects include damage to the kidneys, neurological impairments, bone abnormalities and weight gain among others.

Dr. Hauwa’u explained that: “In children due to their thinner skin and larger body surface area covered by skin, these effects are seen more readily. The systemic effects may manifest much earlier and are often more severe.”

The effects on children range from skin thinning, discolouration, rashes and irritation to acne.

According to the consultant paediatrician, these effects are more marked in young children because they may affect growth and development and may also cause permanent or irreversible damage to the affected body systems.

Some of the damage may be reversed but this all depends on the extent.

According to Makarfi, most of the effects take a long time to resolve but some effects are irreversible and may lead to permanent damage.

She explained that, “For example if the effects are just local effects limited mostly to the skin, stopping the use of such creams or agents may reverse the effects over time. Where the damage has already affected organs or systems within the body, further evaluation may need to be done in a hospital to determine whether the effects can be reversed, corrected or only palliation can be done.”

Against using such products, parents she advised to look out for products that are safe for their children’s skin and overall health.

Makarfi also advised that routine care for children’s skin is what will make the skin to appear good, shiny and healthy.

She said, “This does not mean the skin has to be fair or light. For normal skin regular bath and using of lubricants to keep the skin moist and smooth is okay. There are those children with dry skin and ordinary moisturizers can be used up to three or more times a day to keep the skin healthy.”

Speaking on what drives the craze for light skin, Dr. Michael Amedu, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Federal Medical Centre, Markurdi, analysed it from a mental health perspective. He said there are several reasons people may feel dissatisfied with their skin colour as with their overall looks.

This may range from low self esteem to upbringing and what a person may have grown up knowing as acceptable.

Amedu said, “Sometimes it is an unconscious for some people which we call dysmorphophobia (a mental illness involving obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance). Some go to the extent of having cosmetic surgeries to correct ‘flaws’ that even have medical examinations, are not there. Also, some of the caregivers have mental health issues which reflect on the children and how they guide them. There is also peer pressure and depression could contribute to the craze.”

On the feelings of inadequacies being built into children at such an early age as a result of this practice, he said it is important to begin to teach them early, that what skin colour they have is good and unique to them and should be appreciated as such.

Amedu explains that, “Children like to be reassured and when you do this from early in their years, it grows with them. There are cases which are not isolated where children cannot express themselves or talk about the way they look and have a complex about it all.

“Our environment also may not help, as many look at Caucasians as superior beings.”


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