Two men walk past a skin lightening product advert in Ivory Coast recently — AFP

Ivory Coast has banned skin whitening creams, which are widely used in West Africa, because of fears they cause lasting damage to health, the health ministry said Wednesday. “Cosmetic lightening and hygiene creams . . . that de-pigment the skin . . . are now forbidden,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ban affects whitening creams and lotions containing mercury and its derivatives, cortisone, vitamin A or more than two percent hydroquinine, a lightening agent that is used to develop photographs.

“The number of people with side effects caused by these medicines is really high,” said Christian Doudouko, a member of Ivory Coast’s pharmaceutical authority, warning that they could cause skin cancer.

Lightening products can also lead to hypertension and diabetes, said Elidje Ekra, a dermatologist at the Treichville university hospital in Abidjan.

Whitening creams have been popular for years among African women, who see them as a way to make themselves more attractive.

Nigeria appears to have been at the forefront of the latest skin lightening wave with some celebrities launching their own lines.

Last year one such personality had an online tiff with actress Lupita N’yongo after the latter received a message from a fan who desisted from using the Nigerian personality’s lightening products after appreciating Lupita’s natural beauty.

Although there are no official figures of how many women use such products across Africa, billboards advertising the potentially deadly creams can be seen in cities across the continent.

In Zimbabwe the skin lightening products are illegal but many are sold openly in some shops and on the streets.

There are more expensive options on the market as well some of which include orally administered variants like powders and tablets.

Walking around most towns it is easy to identify the considerable number of mostly women who artificially lighten their skin as they often have weird coloured complexions and in some cases only lighten their faces.

“In our cultures, some people think women with light skin are the most beautiful. This beauty standard . . . pushes many girls to de-pigment their skin,” Ekra said.

“What we see in the media is the lighter one’s skin is, the better one’s life,” he added, referring to advertisements that fill the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, showing models with lighter-than-average skin.

While the craze is most widespread among women, some men use the creams too, Ekra said.

The creams are also extremely popular in many countries in Asia, including India, Pakistan and Japan, as well as in the Middle East.— AFP/Lifestyle Editor.