November 21, 2016
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — It’s business as usual at Executive Salon in downtown Harare, and it’s not all about hairdos.
Skin lightening creams, unlicensed and unregulated by the government, are a prime attraction for customers here.
Revai Tinarwo, a hairdresser, supplies the creams sold there. She sells them because she uses them herself, and says they’ve changed her life.
“My skin was too dark and I had pimples all over my face,” she says. “In summer, I would also always develop a rash, which really lowered my self-esteem.”
But once she began using skin lightening creams, all that changed. People started to notice her, she says, and she now counts socialites and musicians as both customers and friends.
Most of the illegal skin bleaching creams are sold in cosmetics shops or on the street from handbags. But Tinarwo sells her own homemade brand called Lunchbox, so-named because it is a cocktail of multiple creams.
About two dozen customers buy 350 ml containers—all unmarked jars—of Lunchbox cream for $20 each every two or three weeks, she says. That customer base is consistently growing, she says.
Tinarwo says Lunchbox cream can be used in stages, so users can determine how their skin reacts to it.
Skin bleaching is increasingly popular in Zimbabwe, especially as images of Hollywood celebrities are more frequently on display. Fans of skin bleaching say a fair complexion is more appealing than dark skin, and that fair-skinned people even have more opportunities due to their appearance.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe
But skin creams come with a risk: Some brands, sold without licenses and untested by the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, contain potentially dangerous substances, including mercury, which can interfere with kidney and nervous system function, and steroids, which can cause a thinning of the skin. Common side effects of the creams include uneven bleaching, intense irritation or even cancer.
Skin bleaching creams have been available in Zimbabwe since the 1960s, when the cream Ambi became popular, says Richard Rukwata, a spokesman for the Medicines Control Authority. The agency, then known as the Drugs Control Council, eventually banned that product in the 1970s because it contained harmful substances. Ambi was thought to be the only widely available skin bleaching cream on the market at that time.
But the lightening creams have resurfaced in illegal markets, mostly after being smuggled into Zimbabwe from neighboring countries, Rukwata says.
Most skin lightening creams sold on the streets are not authorized by the Medicines Control Authority’s licensing and regulatory board, which tests products for banned substances. But there’s no legislation that specifically targets the cosmetics sector in Zimbabwe, so it’s difficult to regulate the illicit trade of skin bleaching products, he says.
Movate and Epiderm, both illegal in Zimbabwe, are among the more popular skin lightening creams. Most of the creams sold on the market are a dangerous combination of compounds including steroids, hydroquinone and mercury, Rukwata says.
The hydroquinone found in some skin bleaching products could act as a carcinogen, he says.
Lovemore Makurirofa, an information and evaluation officer with the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe, says skin lightening and bleaching creams should be avoided.
“We discourage the use of anything that changes your skin quickly,” he says.
There’s no empirical evidence that skin bleaching creams cause cancer, but when melanin, the pigment that gives human skin, hair and eyes their color, is removed, cancer could result. Melanin is protective, and is especially important for people who live in the tropics and who are exposed to strong sunlight.
Tariro, 27, who asked that just her first name be used because she once bought illegal products, says Pure skin lotion, which she used to treat rough, dark skin, was a very effective skin lightener.
“People started noticing and telling me that I was becoming lighter by the day,” she says. “That’s when I decided to stop, but the moment I stopped, my rough skin condition I used to have got worse.”
Now, she says, she discourages people from using illegal products.
But many people say the payoff is worth the risk.
Rumbi, who asked that just her first name be used because she buys illegal products, says one lightening cream gave her black patches around her knees and knuckles. But when she began using Perfect White cream, she had great results.
“It has given me a smooth and shiny skin which makes you look like an upper-class person from a wealthy background,” she says.
Netsai, who asked that her full name not be used because she engages in illegal activity, sells skin bleaching creams in the Harare salon she owns. She uses creams herself, she says, so she’s a natural marketing tool to attract customers who want to get the same results. She prescribes mixtures after visually diagnosing her clients’ skin, even though she acknowledges that using the wrong mixture could badly damage someone’s skin.
Clients come from as far away as South Africa, she says. Some want lighter skin, but others want their darker skin to appear smoother.
“I also sell skin lightening soaps for one to help maintain the new skin color and quality,” she says.
Even men have become fans of the creams. Harry and Herbert Mubvumbi, 19-year-old identical twins and hip-hop artists, say it was a career choice to bleach their skin. The brothers use Fair & White, which they buy from Democratic Republic of Congo, and mix it with Betasol liquid, which is usually used to treat skin conditions.
“We were very dark in complexion before, but within two weeks after using the creams, there was noticeable change to our skin complexion,” Harry Mubvumbi says.
If they’re successful in their careers and have enough money, they say, they’ll step up their regimen to skin lightening injections—a higher-priced option that carries the same risks as using skin bleaching cream.
Evidence Chenjerai translated some interviews from Shona.