"It’s a mindset that has eaten into society. For a lot of people, it’s the path to getting a good job, having a relationship," said Dr. Isima Sobande, a 27-year-old Nigerian physician who was immediately confronted with the health problems linked to these practices when she started working at a health centre in Lagos. For many Nigerians, it is a "standard procedure," a gateway to beauty and success, she said.
A widening phenomenon despite well-known risks
Skin lightening is popular in many parts of the world, including South Asia and the Middle East. But medical experts say that in Africa - a continent where regulations are often lax or scorned - the widening phenomenon is laden with health risks. Cultural watchdogs, for their part, see it as the toxic legacy of colonialism.
Where statistics about Africa’s skin-bleaching industry exist, they are often old or unreliable. But evidence from the range of products, suppliers and services points to a continent-wide market that may number tens of millions of people and possibly more.
Africa is experiencing a "massive trend of increased use (of skin bleaching), particularly in teenagers and young adults," said Lester Davids, a physiology professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "The older generation used creams - the new generation uses pills and injectables. The horror is that we do not know what these things do in high concentrations over time in the body."
In Nigeria alone, 77 per cent of women - by extrapolation, more than 60 million people - are using lightening products on a "regular basis", the World Health Organization (WHO) said in 2011. A market of high interest for major cosmetic and beauty brands. "More clients want insight on the lightening market," said Rubab Abdoolla, a beauty analyst at market researchers Euromonitor International.
The rich tend to opt for pricier registered products which are available in standard doses. Others are likely to buy creams, often bootleg concoctions mixed in the back streets, that may be dangerous and are blatantly sold in defiance of official bans or constraints. Ingredients may include hydroquinone, steroids, mercury and lead - the same element that, at high doses, poisoned Elizabethan courtiers who powdered their faces ivory white.
In spite of the risks, authorities are struggling to control the market. They have difficulties with the latest bleaching innovations, which include a compound called glutathione, taken as injections or pills.
Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya have all banned skin bleaching products with high amounts of hydroquinone and mercury, with the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa urging people to "reject all colonial notions of beauty".
In July, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority issued a statement telling pregnant women not to take glutathione pills to bleach their unborn babies saying that there may be "serious toxic side effects" such as "asthma, renal failure and chest pains."
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stresses that it has not given approval for any of the injections on the market today. "These products are potentially unsafe and ineffective, and might contain unknown harmful ingredients or contaminants."
In Africa, however, products remain easily available to most consumers through local markets, the web or specialised clinics. Those who start using skin lightening say they invariably stay with the practice.
"Before you know it, it has become some sort of an addiction where you want to maintain that look," said Dabota Lawson, a Lagos socialite and cosmetics entrepreneur. "Just like with plastic surgery, it begins to feel like it’s never enough."
Instagram skincare star Pela Okiemute’s Russian White body cream claims to give "firmness, intense beauty and a mixed race complexion". His Cleopatra Royal cream, whose label features Elizabeth Taylor in her famous role as the Egyptian queen, promises to "lighten and radiate" skin’s tone within two weeks. Okiemute says his creams, which include collagen, kojic acid and "anti-ageing" snail slime are safe, though he declined to divulge his formula. "We have a lot of customers who have used a lot of wrong products, they come to us and we give solutions," he adds.
Intravenous injections and pills of glutathione — an antioxidant naturally found in the body that has a lightening side effect — are the new frontiers of skin bleaching.
At his clinic on the outskirts of Lagos, beside an abandoned Chinese restaurant, plastic surgeon Aranmolate Ayobami charges clients 150,000 naira ($415, 350 euros) for a five-week course of glutathione injections. Known as the "Buttmaster" for helping patients seeking an hourglass figure, Ayobami buys the injections from companies he trusts in the United Arab Emirates or the United States. He only gives certain dosages for a limited amount of time, he said. But sometimes clients will bring in their own cheaper product that they bought online and urge him to inject them. "We try to discourage that," he said.
If many millions of Africans lighten their skin without regret, others are dismayed.
"Skin bleaching is one manifestation of folks trying to get power and privilege aligned with whiteness," said Yaba Blay, a researcher at North Carolina Central University. "We’re seeing folks attempt to be perceived as having more value because of their complexion."
Beyond the influent of colonialism, having a whiter skin tone also means having a job not exposed to sun light and of higher social status.
Recent black movements are trying to challenge that perception. #Melaninpoppin, a hashtag celebrating black skin, and the smash-hit movie "Black Panther," which featured an almost all-black cast wearing African-inspired outfits and natural hair, are held up as testaments to a shift away from longstanding Eurocentric standards of beauty. But whether the tide of opinion is turning in Africa itself is another question.
"The truth for me was that my beauty was more accepted abroad than at home," said Ajuma Nasenyana, a model from northern Kenya, who has walked for Victoria’s Secret and Vivienne Westwood. "In the African industry the lighter your skin tone the more beautiful you are. Hopefully the industry is changing and starting to appreciate darker skin."
Sobande, the doctor, said, "We’re living in a more positive environment than a few years before. But it’s going to take a lot of effort to change the mindset."