This question was posed by Ousmane Faye, MD, PhD, director general of Mali’s Bamako Dermatology Hospital, at the World Congress of Dermatology.
Dr. Faye explored the issue during a hot topics session at the meeting, prefacing that it was an important question to ask because “in West Africa, skin bleaching is very common.”
“There are many local names” for skin bleaching, he said. “For example, in Senegal, it’s called xessal; in Mali and Ivory Coast, its name is caco; in South Africa, there are many names, like ukutsheyisa.”
Skin bleaching refers to the cosmetic misuse of topical agents to change one’s natural skin color. It’s a centuries-old practice that people, mainly women, adopt “to increase attractiveness and self-esteem,” explained Dr. Faye.
To demonstrate how pervasive skin bleaching is on the continent, he presented a slide that summarized figures from six studies spanning the past 2 decades. Prevalence ranged from 25% in Mali (based on a 1993 survey of 210 women) to a high of 79.25% in Benin (from a sample size of 511 women in 2019). In other studies of women in Burkina Faso and Togo, the figures were 44.3% and 58.9%, respectively. The most recently conducted study, which involved 2,689 Senegalese women and was published in 2022, found that nearly 6 in 10 (59.2%) respondents used skin-lightening products.
But skin bleaching isn’t just limited to Africa, said session moderator Omar Lupi, MD, PhD, associate professor of dermatology at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, when approached for an independent comment. “It’s a traditional practice around the world. Maybe not in the developed countries, but it’s quite common in Africa, in South America, and in Asia.”
His sentiments are echoed in a meta-analysis that was published in the International Journal of Dermatology in 2019. The work examined 68 studies involving more than 67,000 people across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. It found that the pooled lifetime prevalence of skin bleaching was 27.7% (95% confidence interval, 19.6-37.5; P < .01).
“This is an important and interesting topic because our world is shrinking,” Dr. Lupi told this news organization. “Even in countries that don’t have bleaching as a common situation, we now have patients who are migrating from one part [of the world] to another, so bleaching is something that can knock on your door and you need to be prepared.”
Misuse leads to complications
The issue is pertinent to dermatologists because skin bleaching is associated with a wide range of complications. Take, for example, topical steroids, which are the most common products used for bleaching, said Dr. Faye in his talk.
“Clobetasol can suppress the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function,” he said, referring to the body’s main stress response system. “It can also foster skin infection, including bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infection.”
In addition, topical steroids that are misused as skin lighteners have been reported to cause stretch marks, skin atrophy, inflammatory acne, and even metabolic disorders such as diabetes and hypertension, said Dr. Faye.
To further his point, he cited a 2021 prospective case-control study conducted across five sub-Saharan countries, which found that the use of “voluntary cosmetic depigmentation” significantly increased a person’s risk for necrotizing fasciitis of the lower limbs (odds ratio, 2.29; 95% CI, 1.19-3.73; P = .0226).
Similarly, mercury, another substance found in products commonly used to bleach skin, has been associated with problems ranging from rashes to renal toxicity. And because it’s so incredibly harmful, mercury is also known to cause neurologic abnormalities.
Apart from causing certain conditions, prolonged use of skin-lightening products can change the way existing diseases present themselves as well as their severity, added Dr. Faye.