Lightened faces proliferate on billboards in Abidjan, with the featured models flaunting their fair skin. In late April, 2015, Ivory Coast banned whitening creams because of the negative health effects associated with them, ranging from white spots and acne to cancer. Despite government attempts to stop the practice, many Ivorian men and women are using these creams with dangerous chemicals for depigmentation. Professor Elidje Ekra, a dermatologist at Abidjan's Treichville university hospital, said, "If applied liberally, the cosmetics can also cause high blood pressure and diabetes."
The banned products include creams containing mercury, certain steroids, vitamin A, or with hydroquinone levels above 2%. Hydroquinone is used in black and white photography and is banned as a skin-lightening ingredient in Europe as it is considered to be a potential carcinogen. The dangers do not seem to deter consumers, though.
While no official statistics are available, 'tchatchos' or those with lightened skin, often recognizable by their darker knuckles and elbows are omnipresent in Abidjan. Businesses continue to sell these whitening products, because they know people will continue to buy them despite the risks. An executive for an Ivorian cosmetic company said, "We know that our lightening products are dangerous. A ban would be counterproductive. It would push consumers to make their own products, which would be even worse. At least we know the composition."
Women claim that it is societal pressure, particularly from men, that forces them to lighten their skin. Marie-Grace Amani, who has been whitening her skin for the past four years, said, "It's men that push women to become lighter."
Ivory Coast's Health Minister Raymonde Goudou Coffie agrees to this. He said, "Ivorian men love women who shine in the night. They bring light and glow in the bedroom. Three months after the new law was introduced, which could entail a fine of 50,000 to 350,000 CFA francs (76 to 534 euros / US$83 to $585) for violators, salons are still advertising their lightening products. After raising awareness, we will move to the next phase of removing products from the market."
A national evaluation and marketing authorization committee has been set up to ensure implementation of the measures, but one of the biggest fights could be against cultural beauty standards.
The practice is not only present in Ivory Coast, but is widespread elsewhere in Africa, as well as in large parts of Asia.