Rwandan police crack down on harmful skin bleaching products

Adrian Blomfield
Some skin bleaching creams contain dangerous levels of mercury  - Rwanda Standards Board

Police have raided beautician and chemist properties across Rwanda in an operation to curb the illegal trade in skin-bleaching products that imperil the lives of women across Africa.

Police and health ministry officials combined forces to seize thousands of outlawed cosmetic products, ranging from oils and lotions to soaps and sprays, amid mounting concern over the dangers women are subjecting themselves to by trying to lighten their skin.

The operation, launched in November, is one of the most visible attempts in Africa to clamp down on the trade. 

Some four in 10 women on the continent are believed to use bleachers and skin-whiteners in the belief that lighter skin will make them more attractive and give them a wealthier, more upper class appearance.

In shops and kiosks across sub-Saharan Africa, products with names like Skin White, Fair Light and Whitenicious line the shelves.

Many bleaching creams and soaps contain mercury as their active ingredient. Mercury inhibits melanin, the natural pigment responsible for skin colour — but it can also cause kidney damage, rashes, psychosis and fungal infections.

Others contain hydroquinone, which is associated with cancer risks if used in large quantities.

Many African countries have banned skin bleaching products, especially those with mercury as an ingredient, but regulations are rarely enforced. 

Rwanda imposed a ban in 2013, but little was done until Paul Kagame, the country’s president, took to Twitter in November to demand action.

Health ministry officials have since published a list of more than 1,000 banned cosmetics. Despite the raids, there have been no arrests, although police said they would eventually begin targeting those who trafficked in the outlawed products.

“This is a continuous operation that will not only get these illegal and harmful products off the market but also fight trafficking,” Jean Bosco Kabera, a senior police commissioner, was quoted as saying in the Rwandan press.

"Right now the focus is getting them off the shelves and education people both on the law and the dangers posed to users.”

Experts have questioned the effectiveness of banning skin whiteners, however. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than a third of South African women use bleaching products despite a ban being in place since 1983. 

Campaigners say that the use of fewer lighter-skinned models in advertising, on billboards and in films would be a more effective way of persuading women to stop using the products.

The market for skin-whitening products, which are also popular in India and China, is thought to be worth more than £10 billion a year. Nigerian women are the biggest consumers, with 77 per cent using the products, according to the WHO.

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