Shady skin whitening injections fuel health fears and scams in West Africa

By | March 11, 2024

A growing number of women in West Africa are injecting themselves with skin whitening agents sold illegally online, in markets or in beauty salons. In addition to potential health risks, the practice also provides a gateway to a vast web of scams. AFP has investigated the risky shots.

In her quest for ‘beautiful skin’, an Ivorian YouTuber recently visited a market stall in Abidjan to receive several injections promoted as containing bleaching agents.

The influencer, who wanted to remain anonymous, waited in vain for ten days for any results.

“It is clear that I have been scammed,” she told AFP.

The young woman is one of a growing number of clients in West Africa who want to reduce the melanin in their skin, because being fair is associated with higher status, privilege and beauty.

The global market value for whitening treatments is expected to rise from an estimated $10 billion in 2021 to $16 billion by 2030.

<span>A laboratory analysis found that lampreys sold online as bleach do not contain any bleaching agents</span></p>
<div><span>SIA KAMBOU</span><span>AFP</span></div>
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A laboratory analysis found that lampreys sold online as whitening treatments did not contain bleaching agents

SIA KAMBOUAFP

Dozens of Facebook pages in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger and Senegal promise “uniform whitening” thanks to various creams or injections.

The practice is also a gateway to a vast web of scams. A laboratory analysis requested by AFP of a popular product in Ivory Coast showed that it contained no bleaching agents.

Experts also warn that the trend is far from harmless, with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling it a “global health problem in need of urgent attention” in 2023.

– ‘Significant health risk’ –

Although creams still dominate the market, injectable fluids are proving increasingly popular among young people.

The effect is thought to be “faster” and “more uniform,” according to Marcellin Doh, the president of a civil society collective in Ivory Coast that is fighting the skin-bleaching craze.

While the risks of creams are well documented (some cause premature aging or contain carcinogens), the dangers of injections are less known.

Specialists confirm that there is little supervision of the ingredients or the production process.

Some shots contain strong anti-inflammatories, according to dermatologist Sarah Kourouma of Treichville University Hospital in Ivory Coast.

“Given their side effects, we assume they are steroids,” she told AFP, adding that long-term use in high doses can cause depigmentation, diabetes and high blood pressure.

<span>Screenshots of Facebook posts promoting bleaching injections taken on February 20, 2024 </span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ac_PxXnHjYOqxxdOMHzRUA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY3MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/afp_factcheck_us_713/184bbbdc7044722a7 8b3b48589f949d9″/><span><button class=

Screenshots of Facebook posts promoting bleaching injections taken on February 20, 2024

Wealthier women, meanwhile, are turning to expensive injections of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant, which can be prescribed to treat cancer and Parkinson’s.

“Young, educated women between the ages of 25 and 30 (inject themselves) every week, sometimes every second day,” Kourouma says.

They risk developing “skin pathologies such as acne and conditions that leave scars and black spots that are very difficult to treat.”

Her observations were echoed by Grace Nkoro, a dermatologist at the Gynaeco-Obstetric Hospital in Cameroon.

Nkoro said she had seen several patients develop skin problems and even kidney failure after “buying these injections on the internet”.

“If you don’t clean the equipment properly, you could potentially inject bacteria into the bloodstream and risk a total body infection.”
– Sarah Kourouma, dermatologist –

Neighboring Ghana issued a public health alert in 2021, warning that glutathione injections “pose a significant health risk” with “toxic side effects to the liver, kidneys and nervous system” (archived here).

– Unsafe injections –

There are also concerns about how these products are administered.

In many cases, traders will give the jab at a market or shop – an “illegal practice”, the Ivorian pharmaceutical regulator said. In other cases, people inject themselves at home.

The lack of medical supervision could lead to the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis, experts warn.

“If you don’t clean the equipment properly, you can potentially inject bacteria into the bloodstream and risk a total body infection,” Kourouma said.

Although Ivorian authorities banned certain bleaching products in 2015, the ban did not directly target products containing glutathione (archived here, in French). As a result, they are still widely available in the market and online.

The manager of an online store in Abidjan, who asked to remain anonymous, said she imported “good quality” products from Southeast Asia, Italy and Switzerland.

According to her, the jabs were “essentially medicine”.

– Fraud product –

AFP contacted another supplier on social media claiming to sell glutathione injections in Abidjan and purchased a batch of 16 vials and powders produced by Dermedical Skin Sciences for 75,000 CFA francs ($124).

<span>Specialists say there is little oversight of the ingredients or manufacturing process of injections</span></p>
<div><span>SIA KAMBOU</span><span>AFP</span></div>
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Specialists say there is little oversight of the ingredients or manufacturing process of injections

SIA KAMBOUAFP

A laboratory analysis by a hospital in Paris showed that the bottles contained vitamins, proteins and sugar, but no glutathione.

Attempts to contact Dermedical Skin Sciences proved futile.

The company’s website lists a laboratory in the Italian city of Milan, but Google Maps only shows a municipal swimming pool and a golf course at the given address (archived here).

There is also no company registered under the name “Dermedical Skin Sciences” with the Italian Chamber of Commerce.

An Ivorian trader promoting the Glutax brand told AFP that a wholesaler in Manila was behind the products.

The capital of the Philippines is home to a staggering number of retailers supplying the African market with skin whitening products.

Further online searches revealed the existence of a Manila-based company called Glutax.

When contacted by AFP, the company confirmed it was headquartered in the capital and was a global distributor of whitening treatments.

Glutathione-based injectables have been banned in the Philippines due to their “potential danger or harm to health”.

“African countries emerged from colonization… But that does not mean that they have emancipated themselves from the prejudices imposed on them.”
– Shingirai Mtero, Institute for Nordic Africa –

– ‘Colonial’ legacy –

Despite the risks and scams, WHO figures show that skin bleaching is still widely practiced in Asia and Africa.

Zimbabwean researcher Shingirai Mtero of the Nordic Africa Institute said these beauty standards were “inherited from the colonial period”.

“African countries emerged from colonization… But that does not mean that they emancipated themselves from the reality and prejudices imposed on them.”

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