Thabsile* is in Grade 12 at a secondary school in Piet Retief, Mpumalanga. She said she and her friends have been planning for their upcoming matric dance for months – and they want to look just like the “popular girls” at the big dance, she said.
“We started bleaching our skin few months ago because we were preparing for matric dance,” said Thabsile, adding that she and her friends were prompted to try skin lightening creams after becoming convinced that they needed to be lighter in complexion to be popular.
According to the World Health Organisation, mercury is just one of the dangerous chemicals that can be found in skin lightening creams. The chemical works to lighten skin by inhibiting the body’s production of melanin, which is responsible for pigmentation. At high enough levels, contact with mercury can lead to kidney and motor skill problems as well as memory loss.
In a 2011 fact sheet, the WHO warned women to check the labels of beauty creams for mercury. While the international health body warned that cosmetic manufacturers do not always list mercury among the contents of creams. However, warnings to avoid contact between creams and jewellery may indicate the presence or mercury.
Luckily, Thabsile said she and her friends have stopped using the cream after a school talk from local health promoter Bheki Khumalo who works with the nearby Iswepe Clinic about 50 km north of Piet Retief.
“People need to know that bleaching their skin is dangerous because the chemicals in those creams are not meant for skins,” said Khumalo who also raised awareness about breast, cervical and prostrate cancers among local learners.
Msinyane Secondary School Principal Africa Maseko told OurHealth that he was grateful for Khumalo’s visit.
“The learners must know that these diseases and viruses exist,” he said. “When (this information) comes from us (teachers), they think it’s a joke and that we are just scaring them.”
*Surname withheld to protect the identity of the child. An edited version of this story was also published by Health24, SowetanLive and Die Son.