Pretoria - “I should be left alone to be the beautiful person I want to be.”
These were the words of actress Florence Masebe during a round-table discussion at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria on the use and dangers of skin-lightening products and hair relaxers. The Department of Science and Technology hosted the event.
Masebe spoke of her personal experiences in the entertainment industry as an actress and how her dark skin and natural hair have caused problems and even cost her some jobs.
“When you get into the make-up room you are made to feel like there’s something wrong with the skin God gave you,” Masebe said.
She said the same panicked look make-up artists got was the one hairstylists got when they had to style her natural hair.
She said the reality was that in the entertainment industry, they would cast light-skinned women in a role because a dark-skinned woman didn’t fit the “bombshell look”.
Masebe said she had to do a photo shoot for one of her television programmes and she was asked to wear a wig because it was a “glamorous shoot” - giving the implication that her natural hair was not glamorous.
Other speakers at the round-table discussion included doctors and scientists who had done research on the phenomenon of skin bleaching and hair relaxers.
Professor Ncoza Dlova, the head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s dermatology department, said women have continued using skin bleaching since the beginning of this phenomenon in the 1960s.
“Now women use these creams all over their bodies, unlike before, when they used it only on their faces and necks,” Dlova said.
One of the effects of the creams was ochronosis (skin damage), which was irreversible.
She said some of the reasons people bleached their skin was due to the influence of the media and advertisements, low self-esteem, treating disorders and pigmentation, ignorance, and the fact that it was a multibillion-dollar industry and a global phenomenon.
Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo of the University of Cape Town has done case studies and clinical research on the risks of hair relaxers.
She said the first patent for hair relaxers was done in the early 1900s by African-American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan. The product contained sodium hydroxide, and in 2016 relaxers still contained the chemical.
“Sodium hydroxide increases the pH levels of your skin. A healthy pH level is 6, or lower than 7, but relaxers (which contain sodium hydroxide) increase your pH levels to 14.
“A pH level of 14 is considered to be corrosive. Then you put neutraliser (usually in shampoo form) to lower the pH level and you get your hair to be permanently straight,” Khumalo said.
“Alopecia (hair loss) increases by 30 percent when a woman uses hair relaxers,” she pointed out.
Khumalo warned that children’s relaxers have the same effect as adult relaxers.