Nearly 77 percent of Nigerian women — the highest percentage in the world — use skin lightening products on a regular basis, according to the World Health Organization.
Why? Some men and women think lighter skin makes them more beautiful, gives them upward mobility, and even helps them find a mate.
“Skin-whitening products represent one of the rapidly growing segments in the global beauty industry,” reports Companies and Markets. “With the concept of beauty in the 21st century revolving around a flawless and fair complexion, there is rising discrimination based on skin color.”
Whitenicious and the Rise of Skin Lightening Products
Skin lightning is big business in Africa, especially in Nigeria. Take the success of a skin lightening product Whitenicious by Nigerian-Cameroonian pop musician Dencia. The product sold out almost immediately after its recent release. Three weeks after its debut in January, sales surpassed 15,000 units as demand for skin lightening products has grown in Nigeria.
Dencia is a true believer in lightening skin and said she has become several shades lighter over the years. While her products are meant to correct dark spots and hyper pigmentation, she does admit they will bleach the skin.
“Why did I get a couple of shades lighter than I was? That’s a personal choice,” she said in an Ebony interview. “That is what I wanted to be… I’m very daring. I like trying things. I’m not doing it because I want to have boyfriends. And I’m not doing it because I want anybody to accept me. It’s because I just wanted to do it.”
According to Dencia, her product is selling best outside of Africa. Eighty percent of people who buy her products are African-American, and 10 percent are white, she told Ebony. The African market makes up 10 percent of Whitenicious’ sales, “because guess what? They don’t have credit cards to buy the products and I’m only taking credit cards or PayPal,” she told Ebony.
“And they don’t have that access. I have white people from Europe, America, and everywhere buying Whitenicious.”
Why There’s a Market, Guaranteed Demand
Skin lightening is growing in Nigeria because of the large population, said Olanrewaju Falodun, a consultant dermatologist at the National Hospital in Abuja.
“The Nigerian market is porous with an ease of penetration by marketers of the products,” Falodun told AFKInsider. “The financial gains from sales of these products are enormous.”
Unsurprisingly, lightening products aren’t cheap. Whitenicious costs $150 for only 60 ml of cream.
“Is Whitenicious making me rich? Whitenicious is putting money in my pocket but it’s not as much as the money that I have spent being a celebrity,” Dencia said. “It hasn’t gotten to that point…I’ve made a lot of money off Whitenicous…a lot of money that I didn’t even expect. And I’m using it to build an orphanage in Cameroon.”
Michael Akolawole, cosmetic dermatologist and lecturer at Ekiti State Teaching Hospital also spoke to AFKInsider about skin whitening.
“It is a multi-billion dollar market in Africa with Nigeria taking the largest chunk,” Akolawole said. “It is profitable business for the manufacturer, importers and marketers. Demand is inelastic, and with an abnormal demand curve — meaning that no matter the price — demand will continue to be steady.”
Falodun said use of skin whitening products is based mainly on “wrong” perception.
“There is a wrong belief that the light-complexioned ladies are more beautiful and acceptable to men,” Falodun said. “Over time ladies who are dark complexioned, who have internalized this wrong perception, tend to lighten their skin to improve their sense of self worth. The other reasons are ignorance and peer pressure.”
Despite this notion, he said that he understands the trend. Akolawole cited his own study of 500-plus students and 500 women in the market, revealing that many use skin whitening products to correct blemishes, sunburn, and discoloration from early aging.
“Light skin is attractive and flashy,” Akolawole said. “Dark skin looks dull, except in a few cases of those that appreciate the natural black beauty.”
The chemicals used in skin lightening products are mainly alpha hydroquinone, steroids and mercury-containing creams. Kojic and alpha hydroxy acids are also frequently used.
Health Complications From Skin Lightening
Long-term complications of skin lightening include thinning of the skin, skin infections, stretch marks and exogenous ochronosis — bluish-black discoloration of certain tissues, Falodun said.
Although there are risky side affects, one shouldn’t expect sales of skin lightening products to decrease.
According to Companies and Markets, the skin lightening industry is expected to be worth $19.8 billion by 2018, driven by demand among both men and women predominately from Asian, African and Middle East regions.