In some communities of colour, beauty standards based on the notion that elevates lighter skin is forcing many to turn to cheap skin-lightening products containing mercury and other harmful solutions suspected of being cancerous. ISAAC ANYAOGU traces the global supply chains from which they enter the country and the local networks that aid their distribution.
Ever since Feyi saw the advert of Delta girl, which aired in the 1990s, she had secretly determined to be one of them. They were alluring in their freshness, the aura of charm about their narrow waistline, long jet black air that flowed like a waterfall and skin that shone like sun in a river.
That was Feyi’s definition of beauty but nature denied her the physical features of a Delta Soap girl. Her skin was dark, a round nose and legs that would be an impostor on a runway. She wasn’t even good enough for a ‘Before’ photo in a Delta soap advert. She decided to fix one thing within her reach: the sun-baked skin by peeling off the first layer with the aid of skin whitening soaps.
Sarah’s case was a tad different. She was battling a severe case of acne when someone suggested that “skin toning creams” but the trouble was, she got more than she bargained for. Within weeks blisters appeared on her face, the face was swollen and soon she sought help from a professional dermatologist.
Like Feyi, thousands of young people are turning to the Nigerian burgeoning beauty and personal care industry to fix unflattering aspects of their form. Skin lightening creams containing mercury, hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinnonie are being used to achieve rapid skin lightening. The users are often unaware of the risks until they are due for a surgical procedure or they develop lesions on their skin.
The obsession for lighter skin is making people rich. According to a study by research firm, Statista, revenue in the Nigerian Beauty and Personal Care market is projected at $7.87bn in 2023. The largest segment is the Personal Care with an expected market volume of $3.49bn in 2023. The market is expected to grow annually by 16.48 percent till 2027.
“The main reason for this strong growth is the generational shift with young consumers entering the market,” said analysts at Statista.
They said this change is reinforced by social media and eCommerce, which have a lasting effect on buying behavior when it comes to beauty products.
Mercury has long been used as a skin-lightening active agent in creams. It is highly toxic and is a hazard to users of skin-lightening products,as well as to their families because the home environment can also become contaminated.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mercury salts can prevent the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. The established limit of mercury for skin-lightening products is 1 milligram per kilogram, according to the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
The convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from human-caused emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.
It entered into force in 2017 and has been ratified by 114 countries as of 2019 including Nigeria.
Yet, many cosmetic products contain mercury levels higher than that amount to increase the whitening effect, WHO says, noting that its products are easy to obtain despite being banned in many countries, including Nigeria.
The leading manufacturers of mercury-based skin-lightening products are Bangladesh, China, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong SAR (China), Jamaica, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the US, WHO’s data show.
The concern for dermatologists is the recent surge in demand for these skin lightening products (SLPs) with high mercury content.
“Bleaching has become an epidemic of some sort and it is usual that we are seeing more sun-induced skin damage because people are tampering with the protective effect of the melanin,” says Shakirat Gold-Olufadi, consultant physician and dermatologist at the University College Hospital Ibadan.
Across the counter, some of these creams are marketed as skin toning, but Gold-Olufade says there’s a marked difference. “For dermatologists, using a toner on the skin means you are using a product to balance the pH of your skin after the initial cleansing before applying your moisturizer and sunscreen.
“However, we have since realised that to the general public, the term ‘toning’ refers to bleaching your skin lightly. So if it is this toning you’re talking about, it is just a semantic word for bleaching and dermatologists also consider it to be bleaching.”
But bleaching comes at a high price. According to the World Bank, diverse health effects of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams and soaps include: kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterialvand fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.
The problem with mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products, according to the study, is that it is eventually discharged into waste water entering the environment. There it becomes methylated and can enter the food chain as highly toxic methylmercury in fish.
Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury can transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can result in neurodevelopmental deficits in the children.
Leslie Adogame, director of non-profit SRAdev Nigeria said the impact of skin lightening creams is “basically skin inflammation, skin cancer and possible kidney damage.
“So we think that if we can continue to send these messages online, its helping to conscientize a lot of younger people into believing more in alternatives that are skin and environmentally friendly than the ones that are damaging to their system irreversibly,” he said.
According to Sarah, one of the products she was told to use for a rapid lightening of her face blackened by acne is Aneeza Gold. But this cream along with seven others are among products tests by the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) revealed contained mercury levels higher than 1 parts per million, the allowable level.
In 2018, the group conducted an international survey collecting and then analyzing 338 skin-lightening products from 22 countries. Thirty- four creams (10 percent of the samples) had mercury concentrations ranging from 93 to 16,353 parts per million (ppm). In some countries the percentage of sampled creams exceeding the 1 ppm limit for mercury was especially high, peaking at 63 percent in Thailand.
A market survey conducted as part of this story revealed that at least seven of these creams with high mercury content are sold in Nigeria largely through online sites.
Entry into Nigeria
This investigation uncovered three major points of entry into Nigeria for all skin lightening products. Based on sampling and opinion surveys of how the industry operates, it is estimated that about 10 percent come smuggled in through Nigeria’s porous land borders mostly from neighbouring African countries like Ghana, Togo or Benin. Some also come in through personal freights at the airports through hand luggage. Similar volume is purchased from foreign e-commerce sites like Alibaba and Amazon and delivered through courier services.
The bulk of the products, over 80 percent come through registered importers, some even licensed by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), the government agency that licenses the importation of cosmetics into the country. The challenge for the agency is that it is unable to keep track of all the products coming into the country.
“We have very porous borders, where people bring things in that we don’t approve,” says NAFDAC DG.
The agency shares a global listing of cosmetic and skincare products that have passed regulatory approvals. This global listing is used by Supermarkets and superstores to import cosmetics products into Nigeria.There over 5,000 of such skincare products approved by NAFDAC. But here’s where things get complicated.
“We do not inspect them like we do one product, two products per company, that is a challenge that we are revisiting as we speak.
“To what extent do we leave them without inspection? Are we going to be doing random inspection so that we can see those that are bringing things in that are of good quality and those that may not be,” says the NAFDAC DG.
The agency lacks the capacity to inspect all the approved products. Some enforcement personnel of NAFDAC said they are not given handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanners to conduct on-the-spot testing for mercury in skincare products imported into the country through the air and seaports.
X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machines are used to test for mercury in products. These machines work by measuring the amount of X-rays emitted from a sample after it is exposed to a beam of X-rays.
Therefore, it relies on raids of already imported skin lightening products into Nigeria. It shared with importers a list of globally approved products of over 5,000 products but cannot adequately monitor each brand imported.
These products upon entering the country largely end up at the biggest international market in the country. The Lagos International Trade Fair Complex located along Lagos-Badagry Expressway, a major gateway into Nigeria from the West African coast, was commissioned in 1976 as an international trade hub to cater for trade with countries along the west coast.
Divided into sections (plazes) and differentiated with names of states in Nigeria, the section for cosmetics (Abuja, Imo, Ogun, Kaduna, Borno, Niger etc) includes both sellers of hair, cream, makeup products and beauty creams – this is the biggest skincare and cosmetic products market in Africa.
Under the guise of representing an intending retailer manufacturer wishing to expand into Lagos, some importers revealed to this reporter that the inadequate monitoring capacity of NAFDAC largely accounts for the importation of different brands including those unapproved by the commission. From these, they move to online stores.
Online E-commerce sites
Over the course of two weeks, this reporter visited big cosmetic shops in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Ogun and Abuja and found that majority of skin lightening creams sold were largely skin toning creams and the market is thriving.
However, the bulk of the creams suspected of containing higher than normal mercury levels are largely sold on e-commerce platforms like Jumia, Konga and Jiji among others.
On Jiji alone there are over 25 vendors selling different versions of the Aneeza Gold whitening creams among others. Other e-commerce sites where these products were found includes: Creams.ng, Muna Cosmetics etc.
A list of and link to these sites are noted below:
Despite the Nigerian government’s ban on mercury in cosmetic creams, a joint investigation conducted from 2020 to 2022 by the Zero Mercury Working Group and partner organizations, including Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev Nigeria), found that many skin-lightening products in Nigeria still contain high levels of mercury.
In April, NAFDAC revealed that 77 percent of Nigerian women used skin-bleaching products, citing a global study.
During the course of the project research, SRADev contacted these e-commerce platforms to sensitise them on the dangers of skin lightening creams suspected of containing mercury. The owners of the Jiji platform did not respond. Jumia and Konga responded and even Jumia went as far as asking some of its vendors to take the products down. Months later, some returned.