Skin lightening addiction: Dermatologist sounds alarm about lesser-known side-effect of bleaching

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Knowledge is power. 'The sad reality,' says Cebisile Sibisi, 'is that skin bleaching will continue to be popular, and patients will continue to seek alternatives, but it’s important to make an informed decision.'
Knowledge is power. 'The sad reality,' says Cebisile Sibisi, 'is that skin bleaching will continue to be popular, and patients will continue to seek alternatives, but it’s important to make an informed decision.'

People have not stopped complimenting you on your appearance since you came out of that IV bar you found on social media that hooked you up onto a drip and pumped glutathione and other substances that sound legit into your system.

The ‘therapist’ promised to make you a shade lighter. But the results are just so much better than what you imagined was possible. 

It’s the head-to-toe evenness of complexion that makes you love your fairer skin tone so much more. Even the skin on your feet matches the yellowness of your face and people are amazed by the transformation.

“Believe it or not, the hands are usually the give-away clue to anyone bleaching as they almost never get lighter. Instead, the knuckles look darker than the rest of the body,” says Dr Cebisile Sibisi. 

For a number of reasons, skin bleaching has become increasingly common in the black community, according to the dermatologist who recently sounded the alarm about one of the lesser-known side-effects of bleaching one’s skin: skin lightening addiction.

“Addiction is a common problem because once a person gets the desired skin tone that they have always wanted, everyone starts commenting, ‘Oh, you look nice!’ then they have to keep up with that because every time they stop using whatever products they were using or stop getting whatever drip they were getting that was making them lighter, they go back to their normal skin tone, and they don’t want that,” the Durban-based doctor tells Drum.

Read more | ‘More harmful than cigarettes’ – 15 ways smoking hubbly bubbly is bad for you, according to experts

“So some will come and say, ‘Doc, I want to stop using this. But I don’t want to go back to my natural skin tone’, which is now a difficult thing to handle as a professional because I cannot stop your body from re-pigmenting. So the addiction is a problem because now they’ve had all these congratulatory remarks from people, and they look at themselves in the mirror and they’re happy because they’ve attained the tone that they want. Now, however, they realise that they’re starting to get other problems, but they don’t want to stop lightening their skin because of the compliments that are coming their way.”

Drawing on her professional experience as a dermatologist in practice, the doctor – popularly known as Dr Cebi on Instagram – says the majority of those who come to her with complexion concerns (about 70%) are those experiencing worrying, sometimes irreversible, side-effects to skin lightening. The 30% are seeking safe ways to lighten their skin when they come in for a consultation with her but, her answer, she says, is always, “There is no safe way to lighten skin colour – no one should do it.”

But it’s hard to change the mind of a person who genuinely believes that they would be more attractive if they were more yellow, Dr Cebi adds, so the best she can do is educate patients so that they can make informed decisions if they do decide to seek ‘treatment’ elsewhere. 

Lack of regulation in South Africa of the supply and distribution of skin-bleaching products that contain harmful and often banned ingredients is one of the major reasons they continue to be so easily available, she says. But the proliferation of social media and self-proclaimed skincare entrepreneurs and ‘therapists’ who sell dubiously labelled products that sometimes omit the harmful or banned active ingredients that have a lightening effect also has a huge role to play in the increasing popularity of skin bleaching. The normative idea of beauty – light-skinned, hour-glass figure with an impossibly tiny waist – which is often peddled on social media also contributes to the unfortunate notion that lighter is more attractive.

“I also feel it’s important to mention  the role that influencers or celebrities play in perpetuating the problem by marketing some of the products,” adds Dr Cebi. 

The biggest problem when it comes to deciphering labels for red flags or concerning ingredients is that many of these products either do not include the ingredients or aren’t labelled, and many of them are sold on the black market, she says. 

“Everyone has become a skin expert and they’re making skincare products that will achieve everything from pigmentation reduction to acne treatment, so that is the biggest danger. Obviously, the ones that are labelled don’t usually mention the things that are problematic. But things to look out for are things like mercury and some of the actually okay-to-use products which people misuse or over-use, so things like hydroquinone – that obviously has to be used under supervision by a specialist and for or a limited time.”

In addition to hydroquinone, topical steroids are the most commonly abused and readily available, says Dr Cebi.

Read more | From adolescence to menopause, each phase of life has different needs for your skin

It’s not just black women consulting therapists, doctors and aestheticians about going lighter, but black men too, adds the Umhlanga-based skin and hair disease specialist. Besides wanting to be ‘more attractive’, people say they want to get skin lightening because they believe being a few shades lighter can help their career progression, says Dr Cebi. 

Increased skin sensitivity is one of the most common side-effects, she says. These are the other side-effects of skin bleaching the dermatologist often encounters:

  • exogenous onchronosis, 
Exogenous onchronosis.
  • telangiesctasia, 
  • easy bruising or purpura, 
Easy bruising or purpura.
  • acquired hypertrichosis, 
Acquired hypertrichosis.
  • steroid acne, 
Steroid acne.
  • tinea incognito 
Tinea incognito.

While exogenous onchronosis is not so common, it is the most distressing side-effect due to difficulty to treat or reverse, says Dr Cebi. Stretch marks, steroid acne and facial hair are also regular occurrences.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24