Three in four women in Nigeria regularly use skin-lighteners, claim a host of international media reports.
The BBC and Guardian in the UK, CNN in the US, eNCA and News24 in South Africa, Vanguard and Pulse in Nigeria and the pan-African platform This is Africa all say 77% of women in the west African country use the potentially harmful products.
The eNCA report claims this is “by extrapolation, more than 60 million people”.
Skin lighteners can be used to treat pigmentation disorders and to lighten skin for cosmetic purposes.
Powerful lightening compounds are available on prescription for treating blemishes and other conditions, but can have serious side effects if made or used incorrectly, according to the UK’s National Health Service.
Do this many women in Nigeria use skin lighteners? We checked.
Statistic attributed to WHO
The WHO said the number came from a 2008 “mercury awareness pack” by the UN Environment Programme (Unep). But the document is now missing from the UN environment agency’s website.
Unep did share a copy of the pack with Africa Check, but other than the dangers of mercury in certain products it did not have any information on skin lightener use in Africa.
Skin lightening study in Lagos
The research was carried out in three markets in Lagos from May to July 1998.
Of the 450 people surveyed, 77.3% (348) said they used skin lightening cosmetics, some of which contained mercury. The users were made up of 252 females and 96 males.
But Dr Sylvia Adebajo, the researcher who carried out the survey, said the findings did not represent all of Nigeria.
“My study was conducted among traders in Lagos. Hence, the right interpretation of the prevalence of skin lightening cream of 77% should be limited to the traders and not generalised to all Nigerians,” she told Africa Check.
Adebajo added that her study was cross-sectional (a snapshot of events at a particular time), so it also did not represent behaviour over a period of time.
‘77% stat endures due to a lack of data’
Davids is co-author of a 2016 paper on skin lightener use in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is very difficult to quote anything else in the face of not having the latest statistics. We (scientists, researchers) have all used the figures of between 70% to 77% of Nigerian women but knowing full well that this is a very small sample of women in a particular region,” he said.
“That is why when we do refer to it we will say ‘a study’ so that you can go into it and see it was only one specific region.”
What does other data show?
A 2006 study at a skin clinic at the University of Nigeria hospital in Enugu found that 58.7% of patients, most of them (75%) women, were using skin lightening products. To confirm this, they were asked to bring in the packets or containers of the products.
And in a 2014 opinion poll, 64% of those interviewed said skin bleaching was “highly predominant” in Nigeria. The poll was of 1,000 phone-owning Nigerians who the researchers said had been “randomly selected”.
They said the results backed up the WHO’s finding “that Nigeria has the highest number of women that use skin-lightening products in the world”.
Small samples and studies in hospitals
Finding reliable information on skin lightening in Nigeria is difficult, Prof Yetunde Olumide, who has studied the practice, told Africa Check.
Olumide’s 2016 book, The vanishing black African woman: a compendium of the global skin-lightening practice, focuses on Nigeria.
She pointed out problems in studies made so far, including the ones discussed in this report.
“In some studies, participants were recruited at hospitals and clinics, and many of the studies included small sample sizes. These selection biases may limit ‘generalisability’ of findings.”
Fear of being stigmatised
Studies in hospitals may have overestimated skin bleaching prevalence, she said. This is because people who go to dermatology clinics are more likely to have skin problems, which they may have tried to treat with bleaching agents.
And many studies relied on participants to self-report, which may have skewed the findings.
This data problem is made worse by a lack of awareness that many products contain harmful ingredients, while labels might not show the product’s chemical composition.
Added to all this was a fear of being stigmatised, Olumide said.
Little harm ‘in overestimating use’
Many skin lightening products are unregulated and may contain harmful substances.
So there isn’t a public health danger “per se” in overestimating their use, said Maia Lesosky, a biostatistician and associate professor at the school of public health’s epidemiology and biostatistics division at the University of Cape Town.
“Overestimation may lead to increased scrutiny by policy makers or such because there is a harm associated with [unregulated] product use,” she told Africa Check.
In 2018 regulations, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control banned unsafe cosmetic products. But the agency has previously admitted that regulation is easier said than done.
Conclusion: No data currently supports claim that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin lighteners.
Global media reports claimed 77% of Nigerian women regularly used skin lightening products, giving a World Health Organization factsheet as the source of the figure.
The WHO’s publication in turn said the 77% share came from a UN document. But the document didn’t include the statistic.
Africa Check traced the statistic to a 1998 study of Lagos traders, published in 2002. It found that 77.3% (348) of 450 people surveyed had said they used skin lightening cosmetics.
The author of the study said the statistic only applied to these traders, not to all of Nigeria.
There is little other data on the use of skin lighteners in Nigeria.
The products are potentially harmful and the unsafe ones banned. So overestimating their use may not be a public health danger, an expert said.
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