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Researcher investigates reasons behind skin bleaching with dangerous chemicals in Tanzania

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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A Georgia State University scientist has examined the use of skin-bleaching cosmetics containing dangerous substances in Tanzania, and found multiple reasons behind why people engage in the practice despite attempts to curtail it.

Kelly M. Lewis, assistant professor of psychology, interviewed 42 women in the city of Dar es Salaam about the practice, which can cause serious health effects, including susceptibility to skin cancer, leukemia, and exposure to chemicals such as mercury, which have been linked to increased rates of infertility and serious skin, brain and kidney disease.

“It’s alarming,” Lewis explained. “Women primarily are not just applying over the counter creams and gels containing chemicals like mercury and lead, but they are also creating local concoctions containing agents such as car battery acid, toothpaste and concentrated washing powder.”

Lewis’ interest in the practice came about in 2000 when living and conducting research in Tanzania on a different topic. She boarded a bus, one Sunday en route to the local market to buy food, and noticed a woman with extremely dark coloring of her joints — dark discoloration is often a result of skin bleaching. 

“I noticed huge boils on her face, uneven coloring on all of her visible joints), and what looked like extreme burning,” she said. “It was so unusual that it caught my attention enough to ask my Tanzanian friends what it might be.  When they told me skin bleaching, I became immediately intrigued.”

Combined with earlier discussions about the lightening of skin involving the late entertainer Michael Jackson, Lewis decided to pursue the matter further and has continued now for over 10 years through the 2010 skin bleaching discussions about baseball player Sammy Sosa.

In her study, one of the reasons women gave for why they used such harmful chemicals was to look more beautiful -- with beauty associated with looking whiter or lighter, and toward a more European or Arab standard of beauty. This, Lewis said, has several sources, but is closely tied to the history of Arab enslavement of Africans and European colonialism in Africa as well as the pervasiveness of Western media.

Such concepts tie in with advancement, whether it is a matter of attracting a mate, getting a better job, or obtaining a higher class of friends, Lewis said.

Skin bleaching, a multi-billion dollar industry, is not solely a phenomenon among African communities or those of the African diaspora across the Caribbean, the United States and elsewhere – skin bleaching has also been increasingly more common in Asia – especially in India, where television commercials and famous Bollywood stars promote the practice.

The Tanzanian government is working to stop the practice, having officially banned the manufacture, sale, supply and distribution of 168 products containing harmful ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone.

But the products are still accessible to the public, Lewis said, as people can obtain them in back rooms of most pharmacies, beauty supply shops, barber shops, and salons. Creams are still manufactured in other parts of the world, and importation rules are either poorly enforced or allowable as long as the products are shipped outside of the home country.

Besides risks for cancer, nerve damage, and organ disease, bleaching can make individuals more susceptible to scabies and other fungal infections, deterioration of the skin, blue-black discoloration of the tissues, as well as elastosis – the breakdown of the elastic tissue.

“When you use skin bleaching products for an extended period of time, it can create unappealing discoloration of the skin and surrounding tissues that is often irreversible,” Lewis said.

Lewis is working with local authorities and scholars to develop ways to prevent the harmful practice, including the development of educational and psychosocial interventions that help to inform the public about the risks of skin bleaching and to empower people to embrace their full African identity.

Lewis is also working on increasing overall understanding of Tanzania and East Africa. She is currently working with colleagues on a documentary that brings light to the practice of skin bleaching; and has lead Georgia State study abroad programs to the nation.  Due to popular demand, she has now opened up the tours to the general public as well. There will be two excursions in 2012: one from May 14 to June 1, and one from June 25 to July 13.

For more information, contact Lewis at klewis28@gsu.edu.

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