I allowed my tears to flow in Jensine's arms, not because I am sad but because there are thousands of Olutosins... thinking about whether to sacrifice the cyber café charges for breakfast or for sisterhood.
The wolof expression “Khess Petch” means “all white.” It is also the name of a brand new skin whitening cream that has been advertised throughout Dakar in the past few days.
The enormous placards in the streets of Dakar promise that the "Khess Petch" cream will brighten your skin in 15 days. To support this claim, the advertisements show "before" and "after" pictures of a woman using the “miracle product.”
The cream, however, was quickly being condemned on social media. An online petition urging the Ministry of Health to end the advertising campaign launched on September 8 and gathered more than 1,000 signatures in four days. The cream’s critics, who include dermatologists, warn that the cream contains a strong corticosteroid, clobetasol propionate, an ingredient that dermatologists say should only be prescribed by health professionals in cases of serious skin diseases.
Skin depigmentation is common in Africa, where the sale of skin whitening products is legal in many countries. People resort to using the creams out of aesthetic concerns based on the idea that fairer skin leads to greater social and economic success. Most of these cheap skin whitening products are made using corticosteroids and hydroquinone (illegal in the European Union), which are harmful and carcinogenic when applied in significant doses on skin. The regular use of these products leads to itching, varicose veins, and stains, but also to a strong dependence due to the product’s penetration into the bloodstream.
“We must convince women that being dark skinned is not a shameful thing”
This is the first time that we see a campaign of this size for a skin whitening cream in Dakar. The posters are on each of the main roads of the city, where one would usually find advertisements for milk for babies, for instance. When I saw the posters last week, I was so shocked that I immediately tweeted about it. Many other Internet users were equally angered, and we decided to launch an online petition to ask the authorities to put an end to this campagin. In the meantime, we are trying to determine who the manufacturer is, since there are no indications on the box.
Of course, we know that this type of product is sold throughout Dakar on the markets, in stores, and in pharmacies. Regardless of social class, women buy them. It’s a completely legal business, and the prices are affordable for everyone. For instance, a 50 gram tube of “Khess Petch” costs less than 2 euros in the Yoff neigbhourhood market. But I’m concerned that these posters will convince even more people to buy the product. Furthermore, this campaign is a good occasion to kick-start debate on this issue.
“So long as influential members of civil society and the political spheres do not set a good example, this phenomenon will continue”
Unlike those countries where skin whitening creams are illegal, like France, skin whitening here is not taboo — quite the contrary, in fact. Being fair-skinned in Senegal means being beautiful and successful. TV presenters, celebrities, and even political women who whiten their skin continue to perpetrate this fad, despite the well-known harmful effects of these products. So long as influential members of civil society and the political spheres do not set a good example, this phenomenon will continue.
But above all, it is the government’s role to take the initiative and make this a public health priority, with the support of nonprofits. There should be educational programs to explain that there is no shame in being dark-skinned, and there should also be laws forbidding the import, sale, and marketing of these products.