Late last month, Rwanda National Police (RNP) and other agencies launched a countrywide operation against skin bleaching products locally known as mukorogo. The other institutions involved include the Ministry of Health as the lead agency, Rwanda Food and Drug Authority, Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) and Rwanda Standards Board (RSB), among others.
The operations are in line with the implementation of the law and policies against skin lightening products such as lotions, oils, toilet soaps and sprays believed to have ill-effects on users.
The skin bleaching products are labeled illegal under the ministerial order determining the list of cosmetics whose use is prohibited in Rwanda; law on organization, functioning and competence of the Council of Pharmacists; law governing narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursors in Rwanda; and the law relating to the regulation and inspection of food and pharmaceutical products.
There are 1,342 cream and oil brands with hydroquinone and mercury, which are prohibited in Rwanda.
Doctors suggest that the two toxic chemicals; hydroquinone and mercury react with ultraviolet rays and lead to more pigmentation and premature aging. The more these products are used the less melanin the body produces, and this leads to an increased risk for skin cancer.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), mercury in skin lightening soaps and creams has side effects on the kidney, cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.
Mercury in soaps and creams, according to medical experts, is eventually discharged into wastewater, and then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can later result in neuro-developmental deficits in the children.
However, according to Dr. Kayitesi Kayitenkore of Kigali Dermatology Centre, hydroquinone is no longer the problem.
“Hydroquinone was banned in most manufacturing countries especially in Europe, but now these industries have opted for dermaceutical and corticosteroid, which are more dangerous,” says Dr. Kayitesi.
She adds: “Dermaceutical can be prescribed as a medication but when you use it for a long period it induces diabetes, hypertension, acnol and striae. Actually about 10 percent of the patients I receive have acnol or striae,” she adds.
Prolonged use of corticosteroid creams and lotions can decrease levels of collagen in the skin. Collagen strengthens and supports the skin, and a reduced amount can increase the risk of striae commonly known as stretch marks.
Striae and acnol may lead to skin reactions including dry skin, redness, swelling, blisters and peeling. They are also considered dangerous to expecting mothers, people with sunburn or other skin problems and allergies, among others.
Acnol in particular may induce painful irritation of skin including burning, blistering, crusting, itching, severe redness, or swelling; and skin rash. It may also lead to breathing complications, dizzy, swelling of the eyes, face, lips, or tongue.
“Some people, majority of them women, use these products unaware that they will bleach their skin although others use them with clear intentions of lightening their skin not knowing the dangers they are exposing themselves to,” Dr. Kayitesi observes.
She recommends rolling out campaign against use of these bleaching cosmetics especially in schools.
“We should also look at addressing this problem from a wider angle; preventing importation of these dangerous products. You don’t have them in shops that mean people won’t use them but also roll out awareness campaign in schools. These young people are exposed to these dangers and should be protected,” she notes.
According to Hubert M. Munyangaju, the managing director of Drug Free Rwanda, a local NGO dedicated to fighting drug abuse, some of these cosmetic substances also act as narcotic drugs.
“Rich women now use melanotan II, an injection that bleaches the skin. This painful process makes the user isolated and indoor as a prescription to complete bleaching process,” says Munyangaju.
Melanotan-II is given as a shot to tan the skin or used as a sexual stimulating agent.
Commissioner of Police (CP) John Bosco Kabera, the Rwanda National Police (RNP) spokesperson, response is both through operations to seize these products from shops, crackdown on importers but also sensitizing the people on the ill-effects of these products and legal repercussions.
“We have since the launch of the operations, seized about 10, 000 pieces of banned creams, oils and soaps with about 80 percent of them taken from shops in the City of Kigali. These are in 120 brands that fall under the 1, 342 prohibited skin lightening products,” CP Kabera said.
Caro-light, mediven, diproson, epiderm crème, white max, Beauty and dermasol constitute the majority bleaching products seized in operations.