How do whitening chemicals affect the skin

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"Black is beautiful"? The Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel apparently sees it a little differently: "Di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face" - "The girls love my bleached face", he sings in his song "Look Pon We" - and his word has it Jamaica weight. Likewise his face. Like him, other Jamaican musicians also bleach their skin. Gaza Slim, Alkaline, Khago and Lisa Hyper, who also raves about it in the song “Bleaching fit me”: “B When you bleach beauty is there answer”, she sings and probably means: Whoever bleaches becomes beautiful.

What a contrast to reggae, the music for which Jamaica is still famous and which has set the pace for the lifestyle of many Jamaicans for so long. Many of the well-known songs are proud of everything that has to do with the African roots that a large part of the people here have. Jamaica also played an important role in the Pan-African Movement and the Black Consciousness Movement, both of which see or even celebrate the African ancestry of the black population as an important cultural heritage. The word "Babylon" was often heard in the songs - a collective term used to describe the decades of oppression of people of African descent in this part of the world by the Europeans. In Jamaica it is also quite common to refer to a person as "Babylon" if he or she is of European descent and therefore stands for oppression and tyranny. But something crucial has changed. Since reggae was replaced by dancehall as the mouthpiece of the youth, it has also happened that the stars and their lyrics recommend the audience to “Babylon”, that is, to become fair-skinned if they still want to get something in Jamaica.

Dancehall now not only sets the tone, but also the tone

Vybz Kartel, who has already achieved a lot, is also taking the next step. Not only has he discovered the use of chemicals to lighten the skin for himself, he has also launched his own range of cosmetic products, for which he is now promoting himself as a testimonial. There are also dissenting voices from the dancehall scene, for example from artists such as Mavado and Sizzla Kalonji, who condemn whitening. And even Vybz Kartel himself was remorseful for the length of a song called "School" and warned at least school children to follow his whitening model. But overall, dancehall now not only sets the tone, but also the tone.

What is known in parts of Africa as "skin toning", "skin whitening" or "also skin bleaching" is mostly called "browning" in Jamaica. The products have names like “Piona”, “Ambi”, “Nadinola”, “Betnovate”, “Dermovate”, “Movate”, “Maxi white”, “Fair” and simply “White”. And quite a few Jamaicans may not even choose one of the products. You buy several of them at once and stir them together at home in proportions that are traded as insider tips: a little bit of it, a little bit of this and then a little bit more toothpaste - and it works even more.

It is believed that lighter skin opens up new opportunities in work and love life

Skin bleaching is particularly widespread among young Jamaicans in the larger cities. It is widely believed that lighter skin would open up completely new opportunities for them in their professional and love lives. It seems they could be right about that. If you look at the country's elite in terms of culture, business, politics and sport, almost all of them are characterized by slightly lighter skin. In Jamaica, however, people with dark skin often live in the constant expectation of rejection and suspect that they will never make it to the top of society anyway. They experience time and again that their skills and achievements are not recognized just because of their skin color. So they seek their salvation in chemical agents with which they lighten their skin.

In Jamaica, as in many other countries, social status, class and skin color are closely intertwined. The color of the skin can be an accelerator or a brake for social mobility - depending on the brightness. The Jamaican sprint world champion Usain Bolt recently spoke very openly about how skin color affects his life in Jamaica: “I once lived in a residential complex where I had some difficulties with neighbors who have lighter skin. My neighbor was a lawyer and warned me: Be careful, young, ambitious people are not seen here. ”Portia Simpson Miller, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, also attributes a large part of the criticism of her to her skin color. Even those who have made it far in Jamaica often feel like a victim of the “colorism” widespread in Jamaican society.

Doctors and politicians urgently warn of the dangers

Many of the bleaching agents, which are often as harmless as simple face creams, are actually unhealthy because they contain harmful substances such as hydroquinone and mercury, which can cause skin irritations, rashes, increased pigmentation and, in the worst case, even be carcinogenic. Doctors and politicians urgently warn of the dangers of skin bleaching and are committed to stopping this practice. In 2007, the Jamaican government even saw itself challenged to an awareness campaign entitled "Don't Kill the Skin" - with modest success: Studies show that the general brightening continues unabated.

There is a billion dollar industry behind the skin lightening business. According to estimates by Global Industry Analysts, the market is expected to be worth $ 23 billion worldwide by 2020. With its brands Vaseline and Dove, Unilever is one of the most important players in this industry. The “Fair and Lovely” whitening cream from Unilever, for example, is a bestseller in India. Most of the consumers of these products live in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. In North America and Europe, such products are mostly banned because of their ingredients or are only permitted with massive restrictions. But in view of the weak legal regulation in many developing countries, it is often much easier for companies to find sales markets there.

Dancehall star Vybz Kartel also wants to earn money from this business. He just knows very well how to get something in Jamaica.

Agomo Atambire is 27 years old and comes from Ghana, where he studied biotechnology in the capital Accra. In the summer he did a six-week internship in the editorial team of fluter.de and in the meantime kept a diary of his experiences in Germany. Now he is back in Accra and wants to do his master's degree.

Illustration: Héctor Jiménez