East African countries are set to ban skin-lightening products that contain hydroquinone, a medical agent linked to health problems when used in high concentrations. The East African Legislative Assembly last week passed a resolution calling for a region-wide ban on the manufacturing and importation of products containing hydroquinone.
At a beauty parlor in Arusha, 52-year-old Rose Mselle has been using skin-bleaching products since she was a teenager. She says women like her want to be beautiful
"And in the process of looking for beauty, or for our skin color to shine, we use things that we shouldn't," she added.
At a nearby market, 32-year-old clothing vendor Janet Jonijosefu used skin-lightening products that contain hydroquinone, a medical agent used to treat dark spots, for years. She stopped after her skin became fragile.
She said the beauty products containing hydroquinone badly affected her skin. She started developing patches on her face. She went to the doctor and was advised to stop using products containing hydroquinone and instead use aloe vera.
Skin-lightening products often use high concentrations of hydroquinone, which can cause skin problems or become toxic when mixed with other bleaching chemicals.
Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa ban or regulate the agent in cosmetics. Tanzania bars imports.
The East African Legislative Assembly last week passed a resolution on a region-wide ban of hydroquinone's manufacture and importation.
Suzan Nakawuki, a member of the regional assembly from Uganda, noted that hydroquinone is not only used by women but also men.
"We have seen men bleaching seriously even more than women," she said. "But it's becoming a problem. If we don't regulate it, it is going to become very problematic."
When used medically, hydroquinone can be an effective treatment for skin discoloration. Some East African lawmakers spoke out against a blanket ban.
Aden Abdikadir, a lawmaker from Kenya, said he is concerned a blanket ban will cause "serious trade disruption" for cosmetics.
If signed by heads of state, the ban becomes law in all six East African Community states, which include Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Critics point out bans on hydroquinone have failed to stop smuggled products from being sold openly. Cosmetics labeled as having hydroquinone are on display at shops in Arusha.
If bans are not backed by enforcement, they will have little effect on the use of the high demand skin-lightening products, despite the risk to health.