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White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa

White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa. Although it’s a slang originally used to refer to white-skinned foreigners, it is now commonly used to describe fellow countrymen and women with light skin shades.

In many parts of Africa, there’s a widely-held sub-conscious perception that light-skinned people, especially women, are more beautiful, desirable and enjoy high levels of social acceptance.

Some researchers believe our attraction to lighter skin shades is a psychological injury from Africa’s colonial past when lighter skin afforded a higher social standing and better employment prospects. In the dark days of slavery, for example, darker-skinned slaves tended to work in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves were reserved to work in the master’s house.


White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa

But it’s easy to blame the past. What about now?

It appears that for decades, the media, international cosmetic houses and the advertising industry have created and stoked a stereotype of beauty that leans toward a preference for light-skinned people.

Using a combination of alluring imagery, subtle messages, and influential marketing strategies that feature light-skinned models and celebrities, more African women (and men) are uncomfortable in their skins and are now swarming to the warm embrace of skin lightening products.

Sadly, the craze for fair beauty in Africa has now reached epidemic proportions.

According to this report by the World Health Organisation, 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products on a regular basis. They are followed by Togo with 59%; South Africa with 35%; Senegal at 27%; and Mali at 25%.

But Africa’s love affair with fairer skin is not a recent phenomenon.

In the late 1960s, 60% of urban African women reported using skin lightener formulas. It became the fourth most commonly used household product after soap, tea and tinned milk.

Home to the world’s largest and fastest growing population of dark-skinned people, a strong emerging middle class, and a predominantly youthful demographic, Africa presents a huge growth market for the skin lightening products industry.

And you can already see the signs on the ground. The volume and range of skin lightening products on the African market has exploded. While some of the brands are recognizable high street names in the beauty industry, there is now a mushrooming of cheap and unregulated skin lightening products on the market too.

White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa

But first, a disclosure:

This article is not a debate about the morality or otherwise of skin bleaching, whitening, lightening, toning, or whatever it’s called these days.

In my opinion, we live in a free society where adults may do whatever they want with their bodies, as long as it’s within the limits of the law and ethical behavior.

However, unlike tattoos, breast implants, liposuction, nose jobs and several other cosmetic procedures that have become increasingly popular in today’s world, I do not believe African consumers, entrepreneurs, and government regulators are sufficiently prepared for this multi-billion dollar industry which is aggressively unraveling on our doorstep.

Worse still, it appears there is nobody to protect the swarm of naïve African consumers who are totally unaware of the devastating effects of skin bleaching, especially from the growing volumes of unregulated products that are taking over the African market.

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In the rest of this article, I’ll be focusing on the four biggest categories of businesses and entrepreneurs who will benefit (or suffer) from the large and booming demand for skin lightening products and services across Africa.

Let’s meet them.

The Magicians

Skin lightening products, especially from the top brands and labels, are pretty expensive. So, I used to think the biggest consumers of these products were the middle class and well-off who could afford them.

I was wrong.

It appears the allure of a lighter skin also has a chokehold on low-income segments of the African market. These people too want the increased privileges and enhanced self-esteem that comes with a skin makeover.

The Magicians are largely indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses who are responsible for the mushrooming of unregulated products that cater to this market segment of consumers who want the benefits of skin lightening products but cannot afford the premium brands.

These products include a wide range of soaps, creams and serums that promise instant results within a few days. They are cheap, available and abundant on the market.

The danger with these products is the concentration of toxic ingredients and compounds they contain. These substances, especially hydroquinone and mercury, cause blood cancers such as leukaemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys, as well as a severe skin condition known as Ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade.

While countries like South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and a few others have banned the production and importation of products that contain these harmful substances, implementation is weak and these products continue to thrive in both the open and black markets.

Already, the growing presence and activities of Magicians in Africa’s beauty market are leaving thousands of casualties in its wake. Many users of these low-end skin lightening products suffer serious damages to their skin and body health.

If nothing is done through consumer awareness and protection initiatives to stem this dangerous tide of unregulated and toxic skin lightening products on the African market, we could be looking at a social and public health catastrophe on a continental scale.

White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa
White on Black – How The Business of Skin Bleaching is Evolving in Africa

The Top Dogs

The Top Dogs are some of the most recognizable names in the global beauty industry. The most active brands in Africa are transnational cosmetic houses headquartered in the USA and Europe.

They include the likes of Olay, L’Oreal, Nutrogena, Fair & Lovely, Lotus, and several new and established brands on the African market.

While they’ll never openly admit it, the Top Dogs have used a combination of overt, subtle and sophisticated marketing strategies to encourage and exploit the demand for ‘fair-skinned beauty’ across Africa. And over the next few decades, I expect they’ll continue to invest significantly in growing their footprint on the African continent.

Unlike the unregulated Magicians, the Top Dogs are bound by strict legal and industry codes that regulate the safety and quality of their products. As a result, their creams, soaps and serums are positioned as high-end premium products that only high-income and well-off African consumers can afford.

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Africa is a very important, strategic, and key growth market for the Top Dogs. Given the continent’s overwhelmingly young population and favourable economic prospects, I suspect the Top Dogs will sink their teeth deeper into the African market over the coming years.

The Top Dogs also present an interesting business opportunity for African entrepreneurs who could join the distribution networks of these brands as importers, distributors and retailers.

And as more people suffer the terrible consequences of using unregulated skin lightening products, I expect the Top Dog brands will appeal to a growing number of African consumers, despite their higher prices.

However, one of the biggest challenges facing these top brands is the nagging presence of fakes on the African market. Leaning on their recognizable brands, a growing number of unscrupulous entrepreneurs produce lookalikes of these products to deceive consumers.

And with their rising sophistication and ingenuity, it’s becoming very difficult to tell these lookalike fake products apart from the original ones.

The Healers

Across Africa, especially in markets that have high numbers of consumers using skin lightening products, local dermatologists say they are seeing more and more patients whose skin have been damaged by years of bleaching – most of them irreversibly.

In Senegal for example, doctors at the main dermatology hospital service in Dakar say they receive an average of 200 women per week in cases related to the use of skin-whitening products.

The trend is the same across the African continent; more people who are suffering from the devastating effects of skin bleaching are seeking professional and medical help.

This growing customer base now presents a booming business opportunity for dermatologists, medical aestheticians, skin therapists and beauticians who are now being sought after to repair and heal damaged skin.

This is a big irony indeed; African consumers who spend money on skin lightening products ultimately spend more money to remedy and reverse the damages caused by these products.


Ghana’s Grace Amey-Obeng, a beauty therapist and medical aesthetician, is one of West Africa’s most successful businesswomen. She made her fortune assisting women who had destroyed their skin with bleaching products. Today, she has built the business into a successful conglomerate with an annual turnover of between $8m and $10m.

I expect that as the scourge of skin bleaching continues on the continent, the demand for skilled professionals and entrepreneurs who provide products and services that can remedy skin damage will increase.

The Crusaders

“Black is beautiful.”

That’s the slogan and rallying cry for the growing number of Crusaders who are taking on the multi-billion dollar skin bleaching industry in Africa.

The Crusaders are fighting a battle for the hearts, minds and pockets of African consumers. Their campaigns, programs and initiatives are targeted at promoting the uniqueness, richness and glamour of black beauty.

And their message is gaining traction in the market.

By promoting the use of products that contain 100% natural and healthy ingredients, they actively encourage African consumers to turn away from using skin bleaching products that contain harmful chemicals which ultimately damage the skin.

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These organic and natural “black-skin-friendly” products contain substances like shea butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, aloe vera and several other naturally-occurring materials that are abundant on the African continent.

If their battle for “black beauty” ultimately wins out, the Crusaders could create a global multi-billion dollar industry that not only serves the African market, but other geographies with black populations – especially in the Caribbean, North America and Europe.

Dudu Osun, a black soap from Nigeria, is an interesting success story of the potential of the black beauty movement. Made from natural ingredients, this soap (including its imitations) has proven to be very popular in West Africa, and continues to sell large volumes every year in the diaspora and African-American communities.

And as more African consumers become comfortable in their own skins and embrace the benefits of using products that contain wholly natural and organic ingredients, I expect that more entrepreneurs and businesses like these ones will join in to serve this large and evolving market.

What side are you on?

As Africa’s beauty industry evolves and continues to grow, there are basically two types of people I see – those who spend money on beauty products and services; and those who  make money by serving a beauty hungry market.

Of course, whatever we choose to do with our skin is entirely up to us.

But as I have just shown in this article, the beauty industry in Africa is evolving in very interesting ways that will create lucrative niches and market opportunities to serve all kinds of consumers – including people who bleach/tone/lighten their skin, and people who don’t.

With a population that’s set to double its current size and reach 2.2 billion by 2050, and a rising middle class, Africa presents a glowing future for the beauty industry.

Whatever the choices consumers make about their skin and beauty, there is a beehive of entrepreneurs and businesses waiting to meet their needs.

I’d really love to see how it all plays out.

Viva Africa!

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Written by Aba Forson

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