analysisBy Bright Simons
"Bleaching" is the preferred term in many parts of Africa for the use of cosmetics that lighten the tone of the skin.
In 2011, the German government funded a study by the World Health Organisation into the dangers of bleaching with these cosmetics, many of which apparently contained inorganic mercury, a substance that can cause kidney damage, suppress immunity, induce anxiety and depression, and even permanently destroy the nerves in the limbs and skin.
The report placed the stamp of authority of a leading inter-governmental agency on a matter that had long attracted negative attention: many women of African ethnicity - 77% in Nigeria for instance - around the world bleach intensely at a high risk to their health in order to feel attractive. Indeed a significant portion of their income goes into sustaining this practice.
African critics of bleaching were however surprised to learn that the practice was widespread in Asia as well, since for many of them bleaching was strictly an issue of racial pride, self-image and identity.
Those who had framed the problem as a pure African one would have been puzzled had they heard that in the preceding year Indian activists had taken on a Unilever skin brand for allegedly promoting "skin-lightening" as a way of benefitting from the close-to-$10bn global trade in skin-whitening creams.
So like several issues of similar hue, a widespread 'third world' problem had been construed as a uniquely African problem, and much fuss made around a self-serving 'African exceptionalism' charade.
A little bit of history would have also taught some of the critics that in pre-modern Europe, women routinely ate arsenic in addition to rubbing the poisonous stuff on their skin in order to lighten their tone.
A little sociology would also have thrown up the uncomfortable fact that male bleaching is rising explosively and thus made a bit of trouble for the thesis that bleaching is all about male pressure and low female self-esteem.
Also worrying for the whole "self-image" framework of looking at the 'problem' might be emerging evidence that 'skin-darkening' may be the preference for the gay community in Asia's hottest sex-spots, contrary to folkloric beliefs that male bleachers tend to be gay.
The biggest effect by far, however, of the tendency to look at bleaching only through the emotive lenses of racial self-identity, or in the sterile fashion preferred by public health specialists, is to miss many more fascinating facts about the self-care industry, and the social psychology of marketing in general, but especially in Africa.
First of all, there are several things going on when it comes to the skin-care industry.
Scandinavian women are buying ton-loads of skin-tanning creams, and the practice is spreading across Europe, with some serious health consequences too.
Fair-skinned women in the West who darken their complexion at the risk of their health are not necessarily making a racial statement.
Whilst global sales in skin-darkening compounds are lower (near $1 billion), that is no doubt because stronger regulatory enforcement in their main markets - Europe and America - makes aggressive marketing of shady stuff much harder. But the rise of internet marketing and more frequent travel are leading to explosive sales growth.
Meanwhile, government regulators in the West continue to warn stridently about the health dangers of anti-ageing products. The sale of such products in Africa are nearly negligible largely because of the demographic realities of a younger population, which have made being old the gateway to special status.
In places where being old is rather mundane, people feel more status-anxiety about growing old. In a similar vein, it is trite fact that 'naturally fair' people appear in African populations, and being rarer, they could have been seen as 'exotic'.
And therein lies an intriguing clue: it is most likely such intra-population 'status determinants' that fuel the global urge in humans to etch medals onto our largest and most outward-projecting organ, the skin, and perhaps not some macro-ethnic identity thing. It is the need to define some niche to slot ourselves into, to be part of some rare, non-mundane, segment of the population, which drives most people to experiment with their skin tone in search for some niche shade.
The search for 'personalisation', the desire to customise for self, the fear of melding into the crowd, of not standing out in some way - these are the key factors racking up sales for the various skin-change solutions. Intriguingly, in market sentiment surveys, many African women who use creams that affect the tone of their complexion routinely mention 'chocolate' as the shade they are aiming for.
In fact, the most successful skin products are marketed as a tool to help you carve your own niche, achieve the complexion nature's higher powers ordained for you in the pre-life.
The makers sell you on the ability of their product to unearth some unique potential of your skin, help your deeper beauty emerge, restore the natural vibrancy and vitality of your skin, help assert your individuality, and indeed find for you: a golden niche.
No product that I have seen - and in preparing to write this I did see a tonne - announces an offer to turn you into some random sample of another race, gender, or age-group. Even anti-ageing creams promise to arrest deterioration due, not to natural aging, but hostile influences of the environment, such as that vile 'oxidation'. And truth be told, each individual's skin is different, and its health therefore requires deliberate interventions.
That some of this skin stuff is made by snakes-oil salesmen who exploit their customers' search for a niche is to be expected; that's the reality of all commerce. The extremes of the trade should of course be dealt with by the appropriate laws and regulations. For example, certain substances, such as hydroquinone, are banned from use in topical products because they are dangerous. It is a simple matter of enforcing those bans.
As for the rise in the skin-care industry on the back of the individual aspirations of black women and men alike, we have only scratched the surface.
Companies like Tiossan, Tara International, Ghandour, and Natura Sarl are a few players in a fast-emerging African home-grown skin-care industry with global ambitions that do not so much as whisper 'lighter skin' in their marketing campaigns.
Clearly, these nimble, well-run, companies have seen beyond the $10 billion skin-lightening trade and are happier targeting a healthier chunk of the more than $170 billion spent globally on cosmetics.
And what have they seen? That the deeper need that skin-care customers of all backgrounds are trying to serve is to heighten their belief in their own inner uniqueness, a yearning for a golden niche.
These emerging African brands sell themselves by emphasising rare attributes of dark skin and proclaim themselves as uniquely able to serve it. Far it be from them to offer some generic 'ethnic stranger' as the model for these special, unique, customers they are aiming to engage.
But thinking about it critically, shouldn't this African skin-care marketing approach - of flattering the human ego's yearning to be unique - become the benchmark of all marketing in a post-industrial age?
Bright Simons is a Social Entrepreneur and Public Interest Researcher. He invented the mPedigree anti-fake drugs system (www.mPedigree.Net), and is a Fellow at IMANI, a think tank in Ghana.