In October, 2021, the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) warned citizens against the use of glutathione for skin bleaching.

This directive followed a similar move in 2017, when it prohibited creams, lotions, oils, serums, etc containing hydroquinone due to its damaging effects on the skin. 

The Authority subsequently published a list of 41 harmful cosmetic products in Ghana in January 2019. This, however, has not stopped importers from bringing the products into the country through illegal routes of entry or concealing them from being seized by the authorities.

Skin lightening is and continues to be the bane of the 21st century. The practice dates back centuries and its patronised by many cultures and tribes with many names which are used interchangeably.

These names include skin lightening, skin toning, skin whitening, brightening, bleaching etc. However, the trend is ultimately rooted in colorism and the fact that in many cultures, lighter skin is associated with beauty and better prospects in terms of employment, marriage and social standing.

Skin whitening products often contain ingredients that are toxic when used in cosmetic products for long durations and without medical guidance.

They have the ability not just to damage skin but cause life-threatening ailments. Despite the ban in many countries of poisonous substances in cosmetic products, inexhaustive list of substances, such as lead, chromium, nickel, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, hydroquinone, steroids, nitrosamine, etc. are still present in many cosmetic products.

In most cases, these are above the permissible regulatory limits. Meanwhile, cancers, renal disorders, thinning and easy bruising of the skin, dermatophyte infection with lesions, macular hyper pigmentation, pityriasis vesicular, diabetes mellitus, micropapillary eruption, hypertension, etc. are possible toxicological and health hazards that may be associated with continuous cosmetic application and dangers of extreme skin bleaching.

In a study on “Use of Skin Lightening products”, with a sample of 555 among 3 Urban fishing Communities in Accra, it was concluded that 96.8 percent of the women suffered dermatological defects such as hypopigmentation, and 86.4 percent suffered Ochronosis (a rare condition of paradoxical skin darkening seen with the use of skin lightening agent hydroquinone.

Also, 56.3 percent had striae (stretch marks) and 15.1 percent suffered infections as a result of using these bleaching creams and/ or cosmetics.

According to the National Health Service (NHS-England), the possible side effects of using products that contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury includes skin becoming darker or too light, thinning or showing visible blood vessels; scarring; kidney, liver or nerve damage; and abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy).

Overusing skin-bleaching products can cause irreversible damage to the affected organs, and the skin might not return to its original condition even after bleaching has stopped.

Bleaching products strip the skin of melanin, which makes the skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning one needs to cover up with extra clothing. There is also a higher risk to skin cancer. However, this does not deter many users of these illegal and dangerous products.

Some women who use illegal skin-bleaching products go as far as bleaching the skin of their children. Their two main reasons are firstly, believing that being light-skinned is beautiful and secondly, to hide the fact that they themselves are not naturally fair-skinned.

For example, in Ghana some pregnant women have gone as far as taking skin-bleaching pills in the hope that their newborn will be naturally light-skinned, not realising that they are damaging themselves and their unborn baby.

All over the world, skin lightening continues to evolve with antioxidants now available as Pills and injectables. This has now become the new frontiers for those seeking a lighter complexion.

Such infusions, administered under unsterile conditions or by unqualified professionals is unsafe and can lead to transmission of diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B. (FDA-Ghana, 2021).

 The FDA, assures the general public that the Authority continues the war against the abuse of substances such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids or chemicals that are not allowed in cosmetics for the purposes of skin whitening and are by this way reiterating that the Authority shall not rest on its interventions of curbing this menace but shall continue to organise raiding activities to unapproved products from the markets, surcharge offenders or perpetrators to face the full rigors of the law per its mandate in the Public Health Act, 2012 (Act 851).

To this end, the Food and Drugs Authority hereby urges consumers to be cautious of any products marketed online with unproven claims about their safety and effectiveness. 

The Authority is also cautioning marketers of such products, whether through product marketing or social media, to stop the spread of misleading information that perpetuates beliefs that a lighter skin equals more beautiful skin and begin to empower consumers to feel beautiful and comfortable in their own natural skin color.