Durban - Dark-skinned people want to be lighter. Light-skinned people want to be darker.

Skin lightening and tanning products are the basis of multi-billion-rand industries. Some products claim to be totally natural, while many contain potentially harmful ingredients that could scar and cause permanent damage to the skin.

The desire to be lighter-skinned, according to Indian anthropologists, is ancient, carved into the culture by waves of light-skinned invaders, and is also linked to India’s complex social hierarchy, or caste system. Those higher up the scale generally tend to have paler skins than people on the bottom rung.

For those with naturally light skin, on the other hand, a tanned skin suggests exuberant health and beauty.

Skin-lightening creams, now frowned upon in the African community, were fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s. Dermatologists today are still trying to treat the side-effects of those attempts to lighten African skin.

“Products were not as sophisticated as they are today. People from the African community back then used products that contained hydroquinone and steroids.

“The results are people with badly burnt and scarred skin, while those who used steroids have extremely thin skin,” said dermatologist Dr Imraan Jhetam.

Hlengiwe Khuzwayo, 55, said she used skin-lightening creams earlier in life to look fair, but damaged her skin.

“I believed that being fair was pretty. I used some creams then that everyone knew would lighten the skin. It was fine at first. Later, I noticed patches of my face getting darker.

“Now I have really dark marks around my cheeks, caused by the skin lightener. I’m trying to sort it out with the help of a dermatologist,” said Khuzwayo.

Some Indian women are so concerned about pigmentation that during pregnancy they eat saffron, powdered gold and green grapes, and drink lots of milk, in the belief that this will make their babies lighter-skinned.

The sale of over-the-counter skin-bleaching creams containing hydroquinone was banned in South Africa in 1992. They have continued to circulate on the black market, however.

Recently, spice shops and newly opened Indian and Pakistani beauty parlours have been doing brisk business with “fairness” creams.

Former beauty queen Sorisha Naidoo claims her products have sold out since pictures of her “new fair self” appeared in newspapers.

Sonali Jairam, a sociologist, said the infatuation with fair skin among Indian South Africans stemmed from India’s history. “It’s the legacy of a jumble of issues - colonialism, class, and a Hollywood culture that exports a white-skinned, blonde-haired ideal,” she said.

Jairam said a distinct example revealed itself through marriage advertisements.

Indian newspapers, the ethnic weeklies in the US, and South African marriage websites all contained adverts seeking light-skinned partners.

Five advertisements on one South African website have skin-colour designations ranging from “wheatish” to “very fair”.

Psychologist Sriddha Lutchman said Indian women’s perception of how dark or fair they were affected their confidence. Lutchman conducted a study in which she asked participants to rate their likelihood of finding a marriage partner, given their skin tone. She found that the lighter the skin tone, or perceived skin tone, of the person, the higher their self-esteem and belief in their eligibility.

“This sense of being better because you are light-skinned has been ingrained from generation to generation. This does not bode well for a large sector of our population, as those who are darker begin to feel inferior. They feel that they are not worthy and that they cannot be beautiful.

“In their quest to be accepted they resort to dangerous measures, such as skin-lightening, without a second thought,” said Lutchman.

Sociologist Smitha Govender, who also conducted a study on the effects of skin-lightening, concurred.

“Skin colour is still one of the fundamental characteristics taken into consideration before a woman’s education, professional status or personality. One of the ladies from the study said when people described her, they would still say she was of wheatish complexion, but thin. Only after that did they mention her educational qualification and profession,” said Govender.

She said the reality was that an “overwhelmingly brown nation looks down on those that are dark-skinned”.

Naidoo, whose Pure Perfect skin-lightening creams are proving so profitable, said she’d decided to lighten her own skin because she was insecure about her colour.

“A photo shoot in a bikini for FHM brought out my insecurities. I really wanted to have beautiful skin and colour and began researching skin-lightening. I have no qualms about the fact that I lighten my skin, because I was unhappy with my original colour,” she said.

Spending almost R3 800 a month on skin-lightening products, just to maintain her colour, Naidoo said her skin had initially reacted to the products, as she abused them.

“I made the mistake of using more in the hope of getting lighter quicker. You will only damage your skin. It will only lighten according to how your body will allow,” she said.

Naidoo insists her products are 100 percent natural and contain no banned substances that could cause long-term harm. She said her creams were successful because they combined all the natural skin-lightening ingredients available in one cream.

At R1 000 for a basic cream and R3 000 for a 113g jar, Naidoo’s products are, however, not guaranteed.

None of her other family members use them.

“My sister is quite pale and has no need for them. My husband (Vivian Reddy) will never use them, as I love him just the way he is. As for my children… I’m happy with their complexions and love them for who they are. If in the future they choose to use skin-lightening products, that will be their choice,” she said.

Mrs X Govender, who did not want her first name to be used, as she didn’t want people to know she lightened her skin, has been using the product for more than five years.

“I love it and wish I could swim in it. I travel to many Eastern countries and I get attention because I am now so light-skinned. I wasn’t fair and didn’t feel pretty enough. Now I feel beautiful and I know people are looking at me because I look so much whiter,” said the 49-year-old woman.

Many skin-lighteners have devastating health consequences for users. In some, acid removes older, darker skin to reveal lighter skin underneath. Others inhibit melanin production - the chemical that produces the colour in skin tone - and contain ingredients such as mulberry extract, kojic acid, arbutin and hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone, a chemical used in photo processing and rubber production, can remove the entire outer layer of the skin.

Umhlanga dermatologist Dr Ishaan Ramkisson said creams with these chemicals caused itching, burning and blistering and eventually led to darker skin patches where the creams had been administered.

“There is also evidence that the long-term effects of such creams may cause skin cancer. Creams containing hydroquinone should not be used at all.

“We use hydroquinone to treat pigmentation, but under the strictest (control),” he said.

Dr Jetham said he received requests for skin-lightening on a daily basis. “Ethically we do not perform skin lightening to alter your God-given colouring. I do, however, treat pigmentation patches and other skin discolouration problems.” - Sunday Tribune