The last five years have seen an increase in the number of people bleaching their skin, resulting in serious side effects such as skin cancer, infections, irreversible pigmentation, stretch marks and thinning of the skin. This is according to research done by dermatologists at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

Professor Ncoza Dlova, head of UKZN’s Department of Dermatology, and Chief Specialist at King Edward and Albert Luthuli hospitals, is leading an anti-skin lightening campaign in KZN. The aim of the project is to raise awareness about the health risks and the cost to the healthcare industry. She also wants to change the way society has conditioned dark-skinned people to feel inferior.

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The research has revealed a dramatic increase in the number of people using skin-lightening products.

a third of them just wanted to have a lighter skin because they feel that if you are lighter you are more beautiful or attractive

“A survey looking at the reasons why some people use skin lighteners showed interesting results. A third of the participants were using bleaching creams to treat skin conditions like acne and eczema, others wanted to treat pigmentation or marks, and a third of them just wanted to have a lighter skin because they feel that if you are lighter you are more beautiful or attractive,” she says.

Prof Dlova is renowned for her expertise in treating skin that has been damaged by the use of illegal skin-lightening creams.

“90 percent of the patients studied did not know that skin bleaching causes side effects that damage the skin, making it either very thin and prone to infection, or causing stretch marks, skin cancer and irreversible pigmentation,” she says.

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The team analysed 40 skin-lightening products that are easily accessible to consumers, and 98% of them were found to contain harmful ingredients that damage the skin.

This finding has inspired the team to educate consumers about the effects of skin bleaching.

“We are planning a march on 26 August, during which we will present a memorandum to the police commissioner to confiscate all the illegal products, according to existing legislation, from the shelves of chain pharmacies, cash and carry [stores], as well as wholesale supermarkets,” she says.