ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Aaliyah Kouman brags about her daily skin care regimen, one the 29-year-old has followed since she was a teenager.
“Every night I use a bedtime oil called Body White,” she explained, proud of her pallid skin tone. “And in the mornings I mix cocoa butter with a whitening lotion.
“If the products ever begin to bother my skin, then I’ll stop,” she added. “If not, then I’ll continue to use them every day.”
Ms. Kouman isn’t alone. In fact, she’s part of a large and growing population of “tchatchos,” an untranslatable Ivory Coast term for people who bleach their skin using products with names like Fair and White, Glow and Nature White despite a ban on them passed by the Ivorian government earlier this year.
It’s a ban widely ignored despite what the government says are the good intentions behind it.
“This declaration to regulate cosmetics and personal care products is to protect Ivorians from depigmentation, one of the major causes of destruction of their health,” Minister of Health and the Fight Against AIDS Raymonde Goudou Coffie said in a statement.
Though no official numbers are available on the number of Ivorian “tchatchos,” skin-bleaching is prevalent throughout West Africa and around the world.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 75 percent of Nigerian women, 27 percent of Senegalese women and 33 percent of South African women regularly use skin-lightening products. In India, over half of all cosmetic products sold there are skin-lightening products.
Forbidden skin-whitening cosmetics contain mercury and its derivatives, corticosteroids and vitamin A, or more than 2 percent of hydroquinone, a potential carcinogen used to develop black-and-white photos.
Hydroquinone lightens the skin by inhibiting the production of melanin, the pigment that darkens people’s skin. But according to research conducted by the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, in concentrations greater than 2 percent, hydroquinone can cause ochronosis — a condition that darkens the skin, the opposite of its intended use.
The European Union has outlawed the chemical as a lightening ingredient in skin care products.
“What women don’t realize is that these products are not lightening the skin, but rather burning off the first epidermal layer of the skin,” said Abidjan-based dermatologist Judicielle Kouakou.
The creams don’t work on feet, knuckles and elbows, making it easy to spot tchatchos. The treatments also dry out the skin, giving some users a tough, leathery-like complexion and posing other health risks.
Expectant mothers who have used skin-bleaching often encounter trouble breastfeeding because of dried milk ducts, said Ms. Kouakou. Users sometimes also suffer from migraines, high blood pressure and skin cancer.
Wagnin Bloudine, 30, began skin-bleaching two years ago after she saw how her friends had lightened themselves. But she has since stopped.
“I noticed the products were marbling my skin, giving me two tones, lightening some areas while leaving others dark,” Ms. Bloudine said.
Questions of skin color
Fueling demand for the whitening locally is the widespread belief in the Ivory Coast that deep-dark skin is dirty.
Ms. Kouman said lightening her skin makes her feel pretty. “It makes my skin look vibrant and clean,” she said.
Many women like Ms. Kouman said they feel as if they receive special treatment when their skin is light compared to other women who remain naturally dark.
Rosine Ako, who owns a hair salon in Abidjan, blames men for the popularity of skin whitening. Competition among Ivorian women for partners is intense, she said.
“Women do this because it’s what men like,” Ms. Ako said. “Here in Ivory Coast, every woman wants to be seen as beautiful by men with the hopes of getting married.”
She added, “If you do not wear the straight hair, and have what men think to be beautiful skin, they will leave you to find what they are looking for elsewhere. I have had many brides-to-be come to me to find whiteners for them to lighten their skin before their wedding.”
But Ivorian men like taxi driver Marc Akinba, 42, disagree. He and others blame the media and foreign entertainment industry for warping the country’s beauty standards.
“Women see music videos or they see celebrities from the United States, for example, and they do everything in their power to be like them,” Mr. Akinba said. “It’s the women who themselves decide what is beautiful and then try to become like that.”
Though the government’s ban has been in force since late April, women still have easy access to whiteners throughout the country. Local open-air markets sell the products because it’s less expensive than visiting a dermatologist. Even with fines as high as $600, salons and cosmetic companies still advertise the products openly.
Ms. Ako said the ban means nothing without targeting the companies that produce them.
“If these products are still being manufactured, then they will somehow be sold whether they are banned or not,” Mr. Ako said. “The market for these products is obvious to manufacturers, and for them money is what matters, not the health of women.”
An increasing number of whitening products are now available claiming to be 100 percent natural too, capitalizing on the craze for nonartificial cosmetics.
Mathieu Tche — a celebrity businessman in Ivory Coast known as Mathieu Pommade — began selling his organic beauty products nine years ago. He claims to have developed his creams after 15 years of research.
“Some women started with me in 2006 and haven’t had any problems with their skin,” he said. “Others have switched to my products after suffering from using other chemical-based products.”
Though he wouldn’t divulge his proprietary secrets, he said his products include cocoa butter-based solutions mixed with honey and essential oils.
“Many women in Ivory Coast spend their days working in the African sun, and it has darkened their skin beyond its natural color,” Mr. Tche said. “So I am here for my sisters, aunts and mothers to help them achieve what they find beautiful, but in a way that is safe and harmless.”