Skin bleaching now a menace

Sunday December 2 2018


The Ministry of Health, the police and Rwanda Standards Board are on a campaign to fight gains skin bleaching products, which are being sold in different cosmetic shops in the country. PHOTO | Cyril NDEGEYA  

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Quite unhealthy among other things. Includes use of prohibited chemicals. MoH and RNP need to reign this in very quickly,” President Paul Kagame tweeted on November 25 in response to a comment against skin bleaching in the country.

The following morning, armed policemen could be seen standing guard around most cosmetics shops with officials from the Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Standards Board removing products used in skin bleaching.

For instance, in Kimironko suburb, police and health officials accompanied by those from the standards board arrived at the stores as early 7:30am.

The Rwanda Standards Board public relations officer Kwizera Simeon told Rwanda the campaign is running for an unspecified period of time, and is only aimed at removing cosmetics with hydroquinone, which is prohibited in the country.


Hydroquinone is a topical agent for reducing skin pigmentation. Theoneste Gasasira, a dermatologist at Kigali Dermatology Centre, said skin bleaching makes one vulnerable to diseases such as cancer, and at times the desired effect is not achieved as the skin develops black spots, it kills melanin among other disadvantages.

“People come here suffering from negative effects of skin bleaching. You find the skin has developed spots,” he said.

Given all these negatives that come with skin bleaching, why do some people still choose to bleach their skin? Can the practice be curbed by the police and other government officials removing these substances from stores?

Why do people still choose bleach their skin?

Sezibera Vincent is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Rwanda. He said the decision to bleach skin can be traced to the psychology of beauty.

Naturally, people want to make themselves look as attractive as possible, which is the reason they shower, shave, and apply cosmetics.

“This need is part of being a human being and there is nothing abnormal about that,” said Dr Sezibera. He however said this love for beauty may reach a point where it becomes excessive and turns into an obsession.


Most of the time this is caused by a complex or frustration about identity. When it is a complex it becomes about admiring say white or brown people and one will do all it takes to look like them. In the case of frustration, a person can think it is associated with dark skin so they bleach away the identity they hate.

Dr Sezibera added that the problem could be generational. “When I was growing up a beautiful woman was viewed as one with natural skin and good amount of weight. Today, they have to be brown and skinny,” he said.

Emmanuel Hakizimana, a PhD student in counselling psychology said the main reason some people bleach their skin is lack of self-acceptance, which he terms an abnormality because naturally a normal human being is expected to be happy about who they are.

Is bleaching skin going to be curbed through legislation and enforcement by police and other agencies?

Asked if bleaching can be curbed through legislation and enforcement by police and other agencies, he said the law should not be the first alternative. Instead, education, awareness and counselling should first be explored.

“Laws are set according to societal needs. When we say someone is normal, it is because they are doing things that match norms set by society.

When they act contrary to these norms, they need to be brought back either through counselling or enforcement of the law.

But the law should not be the first alternative,” he said. The Rwanda Standards Board director-general Raymond Murenzi said that while the most well-known bleaching agent hydroquinone, which is prohibited by the World Health Organisation, there are other toxins that are mixed with cosmetics to bleach skin.


Article 2 of the ministerial order determining the list of cosmetics adopted in 2016 lists 1,343 of these prohibited toxins. Top on the list is 7.7-Immobis, which appears on the USA inventory of chemical substances that are toxic.

It is used in hair dye. Also, on the list is ziram, which was introduced in the west in 1960 as a fungicide. Mr Murenzi said his institution frequently intercepts large volumes of prohibited substances that traders to try to import into the country.

He blamed smuggling for chemicals ending up in the local market, and mostly sold from homes. The ministerial order classifies certain substances as prohibited, others restricted while others are prohibited and restricted.

For instance; hydroquinone is prohibited to use in cosmetics but is acceptable for use in medication and only administered by a doctor. Substances that are prohibited are denied entry into the country.

Regarding the ongoing campaign, he said it is not going to end soon and though a compilation of data is pending, a lot of chemicals have been confiscated.