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The end of skin lighteners?

At long last the Health Department is thinking of banning skin lightening creams.

On 22 May the Health Department printed a copy of a new law they want to bring out. This new law will give factories three months to stop making the creams – and shops one year to stop selling them.

But before they make this law, they have given people three months to write to them. They want to know how people feel about the new law.

The Health Department has come a long way – but it still has not gone the whole way. Companies that make the creams will still have a chance to fight the new law.

“The Health Department is on the right road but I am still very worried,” a skin doctor told Learn and Teach. “The companies will fight this new law tooth and nail. They will do every­thing they can to make the Health Department change its mind. The Health Department has been weak in the past – and I worry that they will not be strong enough to bring in the new law.”


The doctor has good reason to be worried. Skin lightening creams are big business. About 30 million packs of skin lightening creams and lotions are sold in South Africa every year. Most of these creams are bought by women with little or no education.

Since 1975, doctors have been saying that skin lightening creams are dangerous. In 1986 a doctor at Baragwanath Hospital wrote a report saying that more than four out of every 10 women in South Africa have damaged their skin from the creams.

All skin lightening creams have a chemical called “Hydroquinone”. The hydroquinone makes the skin lighter when it is first used. But after about three months, the skin goes darker than before.

The creams do not only leave dark patches. They also leave lots of little lumps all over the face – and wherever else the cream is used. The dark patches and lumps will not go away – and there is nothing doc­tors can do.


Skin doctors from all over South Africa agree that the creams are dangerous and that they should be banned. But the companies are still not listening. They blame their cus­tomers, rather than the creams.

“The problem is that certain blacks mix the creams with other chemicals ­ like Vim,” said Mr A Krok in a story in the Weekly Mail. Mr Krok is a direc­tor of Twins Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes most of the skin lightening creams.

In a story in the Sunday Tribune last month, Mr Tony Bloom, whose com­pany owns half of Mr Krok’s company, said that skin lightening creams are very much like cigarettes ­ -everyone knows they can damage your health, but should have the right to buy them if they choose.

Ellen Kuzwayo, president of the Black Consumers’ Association, says companies are making money out of suffering. “They close their eyes be­ cause the people who suffer are black people. If white people were damaging their skins, there would be a big noise,” she says.


But luckily, some companies are now opening their eyes. On the 22 June, Checkers said they were taking all skin lightening creams off their shel­ves. They are also writing to the Health Department to support the new law. Other companies, like Pick ‘n Pay, say they have never sold the creams.

“I am very pleased that some of the companies are doing something about skin lighteners,” says the skin doctor. “And I am pleased that the Health Department is thinking of doing something they should have done years ago. But why are they still wasting time? Why do they still want to know what people think? And why don’t they just ban these creams – instead of letting shops sell them for another year?”

The skin doctor, who has seen thousands of people with skin damage from skin lightening creams, has one last thing to say. “I wish trade unions and political organisations would join the struggle to get these creams banned. With their help, we could get these creams banned once and for all.”

* Some of you may remember the Learn and Teach Challenge in 1982. We challenged newspapers and magazines to stop advertising skin lightening creams. Drum Magazine was the first to take up the chal­lenge. In September 1982 Drum promised not to carry any more ad­verts. At the time Drum said: “The gains for our readers are more important than the advertising we will lose.”

Once again, we challenge all newspapers and all magazines to stop advertising skin lightening creams – as from right now!

Drum kept its promise – but only for a while. Over the past months Drum has carried many skin lightening cream adverts. In the latest Drum, there is a full page colour advert for “He – Man” skin lightening lotion. Why has Drum broken its promise?

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