77% of Nigerians Bleach. What is happening?

Adesua Ayomaria
7 min readJul 29, 2023
Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

That headline should have read, “77% of Nigerian Women bleach”. This is what the research says, and in plain terms, like that. However, I will not want to introduce any gendered angle to this writing, so I will go with this title.

Although I believe that the different studies on this subject did not properly factor in the men, I have also seen men properly investing in “lightening” creams. This might also be due to the assumption that Nigerian men do not have time for cosmetics.

There is also the common joke that men do not even bother applying creams on their bodies. However, I want you to throw that assumption out of the window. There might be a lot of reasons for women to invest in skincare and go on the quest of “Toning” their skin, but men are not far left behind.

As Nigerians, our issues are multi-faceted. When it comes to our health, apart from the direct infectious diseases or conditions that have straight clinical solutions, our healthcare problems are social and economic. If 77% of the population uses bleaching creams, an urgent issue must be addressed.

In a recent conversation I had with one of the stakeholders of the Nigerian healthcare sector, one passionate about spurring positive conversations about the state of our collective health, I mentioned the low penetration of healthcare insurance amongst the populace and how it was such a big concern to me.

You can check one of my past writings on that subject here. So back to our conversation, the man would reply to me and mention that while achieving broad coverage for health insurance is essential, we need to consider the health-seeking patterns of Nigerians and if we are a nation that appreciates the efficacy of solid healthcare interventions, and how they improve the overall quality of life.

This is true because how do you explain the invasion of our public spaces with unregistered, unlicensed medications, sub-standard varieties, expired medications, and even the sales of alternative medicine supplements and herbal varieties with reckless abandon?

How do you explain that Nigerians can access sensitive, prescription-only medications whenever possible? How do you say that if I leave my house, go to the market, and get anything I want, and I do not mean from a pharmacy?

This can be linked to how bleaching creams have become our beauty industry’s mainstay. It is amusing how its use has been dubbed different names like Toning, lightening, fading, etc.

However, the latter effects are glaring, and many are racking hospital admissions from issues that started from using bleaching creams. In a recent study by the World Health Organization, over 77% of Nigerian women invest in skin bleaching.

The highest percentage of the issue in the world. As the WHO rightly tags it, it is a severe cause for concern and “A dangerous obsession”. This puts this in complete perspective when you compare it with the 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, and 27% of women in Senegal.

This makes the top countries on the list in Africa. Further cementing the opinion that urgent attention needs to be paid to this growing menace. One that cuts across gender, age, social status and ethnic affiliations. It is one dicey situation, and it requires a multi-faceted approach.

We can posture in our songs all we want, dance in our videos, and act in our movies talking about how proud we are of black skin, but our decisions concerning taking care of this skin say the opposite. It is more like an epidemic now, and we are contributing in no small measure to the global skin bleaching industry.

Skin bleaching is now a way of life for a lot of us. In 2017, the global market amounted to about $4.8 billion, but in 2027, just four (4) years away, the market value is expected to double that amount with a projection of $8.9 billion.

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

If 77% of a significant population group is investing in this, imagine how much we contribute to the global bleaching market. While we cannot tell adults what to do with their skin, even though the adverse effects of using skin-bleaching agents have been publicised over time, the scourge continues.

What exactly is the cause, and why is this percentage not reducing? Risks are a fundamental part of life, and in many situations, a decision is considered wise when the benefits far outweigh the risk. However, in the case of skin bleaching, the risk far outweighs the benefits.

Skin Cancer, Severe skin burns, hyperpigmentation, and a lesser tendency for wounds to heal on time are some of the most significant risks. Now, make the judgement yourself. So why has this trend continued? Based on current statistics, about 77% of women, mean at least seven women in a group of ten, use bleaching creams.

Then aside from the aesthetic benefit of changing your skin tone, one of the biggest arguments I find the most credible as a significant cause of skin bleaching is the refusal to let go of our colonialist mentality.

This might seem preposterous in that why are we attributing something that appears as simple as skin bleaching to the effects of colonialism? We forget that colonialism was about radically substituting our entire way of life, from our modes of dressing, languages, and meals to our self-perception.

In Nigeria, even though there are safer alternatives to skin lightening, the products we indulge in here are pumped full of harmful steroids, and we go the extra length ourselves by using glutathione to achieve “Even toning”, as they call it. We have even started direct melanin-removing procedures now. It seems we have remained unshaken in our resolve to eliminate the “annoying” Melanin.

Colourism shows itself in a big way when the discussion drifts towards skin bleaching. Over time, women have always talked about the subtle preference for the light-skinned and how this impacts the opportunities available for the dark-skinned; and I think it is time to take that seriously if we are to reduce this scary index.

Generally, light-skinned women are preferred for modelling gigs, in the theatre for acting roles, for commercials, as air hostesses, etc. So, we cannot pay lip service to this fact; as a society, we have not moved from the general preference for light skin.

In the words of a UK researcher Edward Ademolu, from the University of Manchester, “It has been discovered that the African society as a whole contributes to this through an intra-racial complexion-based hierarchy that often affords societal, cultural and economic privileges and favouritism towards light-skinned people and discriminating against dark-skinned folks”.

From the above, we can see where all the issues stem from. As a health practitioner, I know the skin as a whole is an organ (The biggest one, in fact), and it needs to be treated and effectively managed as one. But for a lot of people, it is aesthetics to them. They see no reason why they cannot alter their appearance to appear more favourable.

White skin has the social capital, and we are tapping into that as much as possible. There is a premium on white skin, and this trend continues as long as this thought process continues. However, one other thing we forget is that dark skin is a form of adaptation. It contains melanin to protect us from the harsh effects of the sun; it is that simple.

As much as we can advocate for an outright banning of bleaching creams. However, we are in an era of freedom of choice. The government can only have much say in what the people decide to do with their bodies. But the attendant effects of using these creams are not funny; many people need to be aware of that.

I subscribe for the relevant bodies to go on a massive sensitisation drive in the hotspots of skin bleaching in the country, in all the six geo-political zones, to inform the people in the big cities, the hinterlands, and the villages about the danger of skin bleaching. This is important because we are on a downward slope here, and this menace cuts across every class of the citizenry.

Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash

We need to invest massively in regulation, regulation and more regulation. A lot of people are making big bucks on the ignorance of others. Many are self-taught “Organic” cream manufacturers, selling to others with no care in the world. Irrespective of your skin colour, you are unique. You are amazing, and it’s high time you recognise that. Men and Women of different skin colours have gone on to achieve their lofty dreams, and you are no exception.