Johannesburg - Standing on a bustling corner of Bree Street in the Joburg CBD at midday, Mamy Pony points to a tub of Caro Light skin lightener.
Her face is toffee-coloured with small patches of dark discolouration. “Yes, it’s working,” she says. “It’s nice, it’s lightening me. It’s lightening my body.”
She says she has been using the cream for 10 years, applying it twice a day, “morning and night”.
Mamy Pony is one of many hawkers in the Joburg city centre who sell the bleaching creams and ointments.
Most of these creams contain banned substances known to cause extreme skin damage – hydroquinone, mercury, and most recently, high levels of corticosteroid, which can cause the skin to thin and tear easily, exposing the blood vessels beneath.
“This one comes from Italy, from a white country. White people make it better,” Pony’s friend Aniece adds, picking up an imported cream claiming to smell of lemons.
Aniece, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supports several children with the profits she makes selling skin lighteners. Although she offers her first name proudly – “It’s French” – she withholds her surname, fearful of being shut down.
“You see people here, some of them eat out of the garbage. I don’t want to eat out of garbage,” she says, waving her hand at the rubbish-strewn hill across from the taxi rank.
She points back at Pony’s small, cluttered box of creams.
“I am surviving because of this thing. You put this thing bad, the police will come.”
She needn’t worry.
South Africa has the toughest laws on skin lighteners of any country in the world, having banned its most common active ingredient – hydroquinone – as well as the words “bleach”, “lighten” or “whiten” in cosmetics advertisements. Yet, apart from a few well-publicised raids by police or the Department of Health, the skin-lightening trade is robust and thriving on our streets.
A study by the University of Cape Town has found that one in three South African women has used skin lighteners, and according to a UKZN study, the number is closer to 35 percent.
This rate makes South African women the sixth-highest proportion of skin bleachers anywhere in the world. Nigeria has the highest in the world, with 77 percent of women using skin-lightening products
According to Dr Lester Davids, a molecular cell biologist at the University of Cape Town, the skin lightening trade has become so rampant and widespread that it is impossible for the government to regulate.
“They’re certainly not doing a good job,” agrees Dr Imraan Jhetam, a private dermatologist in Durban.
Jhetam noted that the rise in international travel has increased smugglers’ opportunities to respond to a voracious demand for skin lighteners.
Mamy Pony gets most of her creams from a shop up the street called Aegis, where a bus driver smuggles them in from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the illegal skin bleaching preparations are smuggled in by road, sea and air from all over the world.
Skin lightening has been big business in South Africa for decades. In the 1960s, Abe and Solly Krok made a fortune selling their Super Rose Complexion cream to black people hoping to surmount the colour bar.
Several years later, patches of black skin appeared on the faces of customers. They were exhibiting signs of cosmetic endochrinosis, a condition caused by the bleaching agent hydroquinone. The damage is irreversible.
But before action could be taken against the Kroks, the brothers had fled to Australia.
It was another decade before anyone mounted a serious offensive against the practice. Anti-apartheid activists joined medical professionals in calling for a ban on the products. In the early 1990s the government finally responded by banning products containing dangerous levels of hydroquinone and advertisements for cosmetics claiming to “bleach”, “lighten,” or “whiten” skin.
It led to a steep drop-off in use. By the end of the 20th century, South Africa’s skin-lightening problem was a not-so-distant memory.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the global skin lightening market is bigger than ever – and demand shows no sign of abating. About 15 percent of the world’s population bought skin lighteners last year. By 2018, the industry is projected to reach sales of $19.8 billion (R210bn).
So what happened?
Jhetam blames the media, noting that the West has exported its version of beauty all over the globe.
Social media erupt every now and then when black celebrities such as Beyonce, Halle Berry, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are Photoshopped to look fairer than they are. Others stars are criticised for being bleached with cosmetics that are more expensive but no doubt much safer than those found on street corners.
A flurry of black African celebrities have also embraced skin lightening treatments and other symbols of whiteness as part of their brand.
Last year, Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star Dencia became the spokesmodel for Whitenicious lightening cream. Closer to home, Kwaito artist Nomasonto “Mshoza” Maswanganyi caused a stir in 2011 after appearing on the BBC to gush over her near-Michael Jackson-like transformation.
Respected international beauty companies are cashing in on the hype with creams that purport to correct or even skin tone, promoted by black women bathed in light.
The desire for a light complexion is so intense in Africa, Asia and the Far East that women have started taking orally or by injection dodgy treatments that had previously been applied topically.
If the biggest names in showbusiness can’t resist the pressure to lighten up, it gives ordinary women the impression that you need to appear white to succeed or to be attractive.
Fortunately, there are a few notable holdouts. The rise to fame of actress Lupita Nyong’o has inspired women of colour around the world.
Addressing the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon in February, Nyong’o revealed that as a teenager she had loathed her dark skin and had prayed every night for a fairer complexion.
It was the appearance of dark-skinned role models like talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey and supermodel Alek Wek (“dark as night”) who showed her that black could be beautiful.
At the luncheon, Nyong’o read a letter from a fan.
“Dear Lupita, I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
Said Nyong’o: “My heart bled a little when I read those words.”
For some, Nyong’o represents the beginning of a shift away from a Western beauty standard. But it’s doubtful. After all, the appearance of Wek changed little.
South African poet and actress Lebo Mashile says she was fortunate that she “rode a wave” to fame at a time when the country was shedding apartheid.
“The county was in the throes of revolution, forming an identity. I was very lucky to find myself there.”
Today, she says, her “natural” look – her Afro, her plus-size body – would bar her from fame.
“I could make a lot more money if I slapped on a wig. But I don’t bat for team Yellowbone,” she said, referring to a US slang term for lighter-skinned black women. “I think that’s a load of s***.”
Jhetam says the best one can hope for is that one day there will be something safe and effective to lighten skin. But until then South Africa’s black market skin-lightening industry “will thrive”.