• Racial prejudice in South Africa is contributing to a dangerous skin bleaching trend. (SBS Dateline)
A shocking number of black South Africans are using dangerous skin bleaching products to whiten their skin. We talk to young people who believe being whiter will help them get ahead in life.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - 21:30

Jeff is an aspiring rapper from Johannesburg – he is naturally dark-skinned, but every night he applies a number of products to his skin, hoping to make it lighter.

“I feel like I’m more appealing now,” Jeff tells Dateline reporter Tania Rashid. “Because I’m whiter.”

He’s convinced that having lighter skin is the secret to success, both professionally and in his social life.

The concoction he mixes and applies each night before he goes out contains lemon, sunscreen and Lemonvate, which carries mercury and corticosteroids – both dangerous for the skin. Mercury is also harmful to his brain, heart, lungs and immune system.

His story is not unusual.

In South Africa, a growing portion of the population is using skin bleaching products, hoping it will improve their job prospects and social status – in a country that has a history of racism and racial injustice.

It’s illegal to sell skin lightening or bleaching products – and yet it’s big business, with studies showing up to one in three women in the country buy them.

The reason many of these products are banned is because they contain a chemical compound called Hydroquinone. Over time, high concentrations of the substance can cause irreparable damage to the skin, and suppress the production of melanin, a pigment that affects the colour of human skin, hair and eyes – generally speaking, the more melanin in someone’s skin the darker their skin is.

Professor Ncoza Dlova is a dermatologist who sees many patients using skin bleaching products. She says stalling melanin production takes away one of the mechanisms the skin has for blocking ultraviolet rays, making it easier for people to receive burns and skin cancer.

These side effects of Hydroquinone – and other skin whitening compounds – have led regulators in many countries to either ban it, or limit its concentration to no more than 2-4 per cent in any product, and require a prescription for it to be purchased.

However, in many parts of Africa, creams with up to 15 per cent concentration of hydroquinone can be purchased in stores.

While investigating the use of skin whitening products in South Africa, Dateline joined a police team on several raids, where they found a number of stores selling illegal creams. It resulted in 525 products being confiscated across five shops – many of the store owners and staff were arrested and taking into custody.

Commander of the police team, Brigadier Delisaway Mota, says the trade is tricky to control and many vendors will simply re-stock after products have been confiscated from their shop. It’s trickier still because many of the products are moved into South Africa from overseas, rather than being produced locally.

Another issue; some shops seem to be unsure about the laws controlling hydroquinone and therefore aren’t cognisant of the fact they’re breaking the law.

In South Africa demand is so high for skin whitening products that many shopkeepers, including outdoor fruit stands and street vendors, willingly risk arrest to sell them.

If the demand remains high, sellers will find a way to meet that demand.

For Jeff, his decision to begin using skin whitening products stemmed from a feeling of isolation.

He was one of the few dark-skinned children at his school, and he was regularly teased.

“My friends also had girlfriends and all that and I didn’t, you know,” he says. “So I thought maybe that was the reason why – because of my skin.”

“[They would call me] Kaffir, a word they used to use in apartheid, they used to call black people kaffirs.”

Beauty magazine editor Mathahle Stofile says the pressures young men like Jeff feel to lighten their skin is proof that the races still aren’t equal in South Africa.

“We have women who have been told for generations that they are not good enough, that their skin colour is not attractive, that their hair texture is not attractive, that it needs to be fixed,” she says.

“How crazy is it that we live in a world where your life can be easier just based on the colour of your skin?”

“It is that legacy of apartheid; that white is better, white is more beautiful.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


Systemic racism is behind South Africa’s failure to transform its economy
The racism, poverty and inequality in South Africa has largely been caused by centuries of conflict between white colonisers and indigenous Africans.
Why more Asian men are using skin-whitening products
There is a worrying trend among young Asian males of whitening their skin, which many believe will provide social and economic gain.
Medically, lightening your skin really isn’t good for it
Most skin lightening products contain dangerous chemicals and have severe side effects, but these are regularly not acknowledged on their labels.
Why it’s time all African countries took a stand on skin lightening creams
Skin lightening creams are largely unregulated, dangerous to health and reinforce racist attitudes. It is time they were universally banned.


Reporter: Tania Rashid

Camera: Simon Rawles

Editor: Ella Newton



I'm joining Brigadier Delisaway Mota, head of the police in Witbank, close to Johannesburg. She and her team are about to raid five premises. She's not looking for drugs, or guns - but beauty products. So we're going inside the shop right now and the Brigadier is looking for someone selling the illegal skin whitening products.

BRIGADIER DELISAWAY MOTA:  These products are banned.

It's illegal to sell any cream that claims to bleach or lighten your skin.

BRIGADIER DELISAWAY MOTA:  It's like she wasn't aware she was supposed to be selling this in the shop. We've just confiscated six or seven of these skin lightening creams.

Skin bleaching creams are big business. A recent study suggested one in three South African women buy them.

BRIGADIER DELISAWAY MOTA:  Open the store room for us. Open it or we will break it open. The fact that you are behind the counter, it means that you are fully accountable for what is happening in this shop.

They are banned because scientists say if you use them you risk getting skin cancer and other serious conditions.

WOMAN:  Dangerous chemicals. There’s chemical in that one.

But the Brigadier tells me, as soon as the police confiscate the creams, the vendors re-stock.

BRIGADIER DELISAWAY MOTA:  It is hard to police, because these are not South African products, they have been imported.

REPORTER:  So why do you think there is a rise in these skin whitening products? I mean there's 525 products here from the raid.

BRIGADIER DELISAWAY MOTA:  It is a demand. It is because of a demand that is there.

Skin bleaching creams made all over the world are smuggled here. They're an international phenomenon - big in Africa, but also Asia, Europe and America. Growing up as a dark-skinned Bangladeshi, I felt the social pressures to use them. But I'm surprised their use is on the rise in South Africa, where black people won a struggle for political power. In downtown Johannesburg, the law is openly defied - the illegal creams really are everywhere.

My goodness, I'm standing right next to some fruit vendors and in the middle of it, you just see skin whitening creams. It is being sold en masse. Every block I walk up to is selling this. Why are - OK, we just got kicked out. They're up to no good so they don't want us here.

I've come to a student area to meet someone who's trying to look lighter. This is Jeff, a 19-year-old marketing student. He tells me he has been using skin bleaching creams for two years.

REPORTER:  And it's worked out for you?

JEFF:  Yeah. I looked different before.

REPORTER: Whoa, that's totally different, it's like a different person?

JEFF:  Yeah.

REPORTER:  What did you not like about this?

JEFF:  When I compare myself to now, I feel like I'm more appealing now.


JEFF:  Because I'm lighter… Yeah.

It's Friday, and it's party night. So it's the college life?

JEFF:  Excuse the mess. This is where...

REPORTER:  Where all the magic happens?

JEFF:  Yeah!

Jeff is getting ready for a big evening.

JEFF:  OK, I have a little something I mix every night before I go out for my skin.

REPORTER:  It's Lemonvate.

JEFF:  Yeah, and then I just mix it all altogether.

He mixes lemon, sunscreen and Lemonvate, a cream many South Africans use as a skin lightener, even if its packaging makes no such claim.

JEFF:  Then I'm good. First saw it in an advert, then, yeah, I bought it. I started getting lighter and I just continued using it. The lighter, the better, I think.

Jeff is ready for action.

JEFF:  I'm smooth when it comes to the ladies.

REPORTER:  Oh yeah? So how are you doing?

JEFF:  Well, tonight I got four numbers so far!

Jeff's convinced having lighter skin is the secret to his success. A lot of other young South Africans would agree that it's a plus in the dating game. I want to know why. I've heard of a singer who's famous in South Africa for transforming the way she looks with skin bleaching products. I'm about to meet with local celebrity, Mshoza. She's an icon here in South Africa.

MSHOZA:  How are you?

REPORTER:  I'm good, Mshoza.

Mshoza is one of the country's biggest female rappers. Mshoza was a township girl who had a smash-hit single as a teenager. She then disappeared from the public eye - and a new, much lighter Mshoza then reappeared.

GABI LA ROUX, PRODUCER:  You have a line missing there. I tell you what, can we try something? Go in there, I'll talk to you.

Producer Gabi La Roux and Mshoza are working on a new track. Mshoza's rags to riches story makes her a role model for many young South Africans and she is as famous for her skin bleaching as for her singing. We agree to meet the next day. I join her at an upmarket spa.

BEAUTICIAN:  We're still going to do the full body scrub, but we’re going to start with the facial now.

She's getting ready for a photo shoot to endorse a new skin bleaching cream. Mshoza says she uses skin bleaching creams for a medical condition but accepts that her new look has helped re-energise her career.

MSHOZA:  People saying when you are dark-skinned you can't find a job. To me, that's not being sensitive, because I have been through that, I've experienced that.

She admits young South Africans will copy her.

MSHOZA:  I am always on TV, I’m on newspapers. They’re bound to read and want to be like someone who’s on TV. That’s part of life.

Mshoza's PR manager, Kolilie, says celebrities need to look lighter.

KOLILIE:  It works better on screen, it works better with make-up and we’re selling an idealistic world out there. In TV we have to sell a fake world. That’s our job.

Pearl runs the company that makes the products that Mshoza is going to endorse.

PEARL:  This is the most effective of them all.


PEARL:  It can take you three to four shades lighter and this can take you three shades lighter and this can take you one to two shades lighter.

REPORTER:  Wow, so different levels of lightness?

PEARL:  Yes, it depends on how you want to look or our goal.

REPORTER:  What are you going to use on Mshoza today?

PEARL:  I think this one.

REPORTER:  This is the most intense one?

PEARL:  Yeah.

Mshoza's make-up artist Kim, tells me she also uses skin bleaching products. She wants to be "Yellow bone", slang from the American south, meaning "Light-skinned black woman".

KIM, MAKE UP ARTIST:  When you walk in the room or club and you are yellow, people notice you, you know, like, "Yellow bone, yellow bone, yeah she’s light skinned", you know what I’m saying, you know, you are more visible, people notice you and even if you go to interviews and you are slightly fair-skinned there is probably a 50% chance of you getting the job. So it has a huge impact on how people treat you as well. I feel like it will never really come to an end as long as white is labelled as the perfect race. It will never come to an end.

The team get Mshoza ready for the camera and use some of the new cream.

REPORTER:  How does it feel when you put it on?

MSHOZA:   It stings a little bit, just a little when I first put it on, but then that basically tells me that it's penetrating and it works.

I'm starting to think that the cream is not above board.

REPORTER:  What did you just put on your hand?

MSHOZA:  It's a hand cream. It's used for hands and knees, elbows - it's more - you can't use the same thing on your face because it is too much hydroquinone, I think.

REPORTER:  Oh, there's hydroquinone in it?

MSHOZA:   I don't know, I don't know, but it is - it is just... It's deeper, it's... Huh?

Hydroquinone penetrates the skin and suppresses the production of the skin pigment, melanin. Scientists have linked it had to skin cancer. It's banned, except as a medicine.

REPORTER:  How do you think young black girls are going to respond to you promoting?

MSHOZA:  I can't stop those girls doing it. It's happened already, they are doing it, they are using products. But they just are using products that are no good for them. So with me saying use this, I'm basically saying, "If you want to do this, do it the right way, this is the product to use".

We head to a TV studio where Mshoza is about to perform her new track on live TV. I've been pretty shocked by what I've heard in the spa about the advantages of skin lightening. Mshoza and her entourage take it as a given that being whiter helps you be more successful. I want to know what Mshoza's producer, Gabi, thinks. He is one of the most experienced men in the music business in South Africa.

GABI LA ROUX:  You know, there's producers involved, like myself, there's record companies involved and then, of course, the fans. And you have to be a certain way and look a certain way in order to fit in. So an African woman with a lighter skin may be viewed generally as more beautiful - I can't see really the reason because they're beautiful either way.

Millions will watch. Mshoza is an all-singing, all-dancing advertisement for skin bleaching. But I want to know more about its risks. Zinkle Msomi is a hospital cleaner who has come to see Professor Ncoza Dlova, a top dermatologist. Zinkle has used illegal skin bleaching creams that contain corticosteroids. They've contributed to this painful condition. Professor Dlova did a recent study suggesting 90% of women bleaching their skin didn't know the risks.

PROFESSOR NCOZA DLOVA (Translation): Approximately how many creams have you used on your skin?

ZINKLE MSOMI (Translation):  About 15 creams and it got worse instead of better.

Professor Dlova gives her a prescription to ease the discomfort.

REPORTER:  Is it hard for you to see patients like that?

PROFESSOR NCOZA DLOVA:  Like this? Yes, I mean look at her - there's nothing we can do for her now. It's all damaged and she's...

I ask her about the active ingredients in the creams that lighten skin.

PROFESSOR NCOZA DLOVA:  It's mercury, it's hydroquinone, it's phenol and it's a corticosteroid creams so when you lighten the skin you basically remove the melanin that is protective to your skin and prevents damage from ultra-violet rays and getting skin cancer.

It's astonishing to her that people would risk cancer to be whiter.

REPORTER:  I just wanted you to take a look. Have you seen products like this and do they raise your suspicion?

I show her the products Mshoza is endorsing.

PROFESSOR NCOZA DLOVA:  It just says, "Half caste white cream", I don't know what that means and it doesn't say what it contains. So if you test these and then you find the bad compounds, then you can make a case for it.

Even though it's after hours, she persuades her colleagues in the lab to test the product. We give samples of the cream to other reputable labs and we're told we will get the results in a few days. Meanwhile, I catch up with Jeff. He wants to make it as a rapper and today, he and his friends are shooting a music video.

MAN:  Sing it out, sing it out.

He sees being a light-skinned performer as a great way to get female fans.

JEFF:  Girls, especially girls, like rappers that are attractive.

REPORTER:  And attractive means light skin?

JEFF:  Yes, and by attractive I mean light skin - with a beard, yeah!

Jeff has already got 16,000 Instagram followers. His friend, Ora, a model, tells me she doesn't use skin bleaching creams but understands why others do.

ORA:  People always go on about yellow bones, you know, these lighter girls, and it's always appreciated or accepted or who wants it, you know, like, girls that are lighter are prettier.

And there's US influence - Beyonce describes herself as "Yellow bone" in her single “Formation”.

ORA:  It's so sad because all these other girls who are not light are going to go out there and try and do stuff like skin bleaching just to look lighter and be accepted and seen as beautiful.

Jeff is beginning to open up more about why he wants to look lighter. He tells me he went to a private school, where he was one of the only black kids.

JEFF:  I kind of stood out a bit. I don't think for the right reasons at that time. So they would tease me, with comments every now and then, but you could feel that.

REPORTER:  It hurts?

JEFF:  Yeah. Just laugh along just to...

REPORTER:  Yeah, I know how it feels.

JEFF:  My friends also, like, had girlfriends and all of that and I didn't have, so I thought really that was the reason why, because of my skin.

REPORTER:  Did they make racist comments?

JEFF:  Yeah, it's... Yeah, they did.

REPORTER:  What would they say?

JEFF:  Kaffir is like a word they used to use in Apartheid, like they used to call black people kaffirs.

Kaffir is a racist offensive term like the N-word.

JEFF:  I think I just wanted to fit in, in that group.

I feel for Jeff, and the pressure he feels to look lighter. When I was younger, I, too, experienced racism and felt the pressure to use skin bleaching products. But some people are taking a stand against the light-skinned look, and the values behind it. Mathahle Stofile describes herself as a beauty activist. She is styling a shoot for a new magazine that promotes a very different look.

MATHAHLE STOFILE, BEAUTY ACTIVIST:  This is our studio, we're shooting, we are doing Zulu traditional hairstyles, with our beautiful model there. We are trying to kind of normalise this sort of beauty, that you can be that dark-skinned and still be in the context of a beauty shoot. It's just normal and beautiful, and many black women in South Africa look like her.

Mathahle thinks the skin bleaching trend is a sign that the racists still aren't equal here.

MATHAHLE STOFILE:  We have women who have been told for generations that they are not good enough, that their skin colour is not attractive, that their hair texture is not attractive, that it needs to be fixed, and the question is, how crazy is it that we live in a world where your life can be easier just based on how you look, just based on the colour of your skin?

It is definitely that legacy of Apartheid, that white is better, white is more beautiful. White people are still in power because white people still own South Africa, they hold the economic power, and having a black government - great, but if they're not changing those rules and kind of empowering black people, we're always then going to be knocking on white men's door looking for acceptance, just so we can progress.

I'm concerned Jeff's skin bleaching could be putting him in danger. I call Professor Lester Davids, across the country in Cape Town, who has conducted tests on Lemonvate, the cream Jeff uses.

PROFESSOR LESTER DAVIDS:  So Lemonvate is one of those creams that contains mercury. It also contains trace amounts of corticosteroids, which also have a negative effect on the skin.

REPORTER:  Wow, it turns out that the product Jeff is using is, in fact, really dangerous. He's putting mercury into his body.

Mercury can harm the brain, heart, lungs and immune system - with continued use, it could even lead to organ failure. Jeff goes through a bottle of Lemonvate a month.

REPORTER:  You know the cream you're using? It's illegal to be sold as a cosmetic.

JEFF:  Is it?


JEFF:  I had no idea.

REPORTER:   You know it has very dangerous ingredients that can harm you? It has mercury.

JEFF:  OK. I don't think I would stop using it. At the moment, I don't think I would stop using it because it's really helping.

REPORTER:  You're still willing to use this cream?

JEFF:  If I knew, like, the side effects and everything, I think I would have chosen, like, an alternative solution.

REPORTER: I think that's a good point.

JEFF: I have to think about it.

The manufacturers of Lemonvate told us it does not contain any banned ingredients - that they do not distribute it in Africa and what's available there are counterfeit copies. We've been sent a lab analysis of the skin cream that Mshoza is intending to endorse. It contains hydroquinone, the banned substance we keep hearing about, which lowers the melanin in the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer. It has been very difficult to get a hold of Mshoza. She finally answered her phone this morning and now we're driving about three hours away from Joburg to go and meet with her and to discuss the results that we got from the lab.

MSHOZA:  Ah, no, it's hot!

After bleaching her skin for so long, Mshoza finds direct sunlight painful.

MSHOZA:  I'm burning.

REPORTER:  So, I wanted to talk to you a bit about the product you were promoting. Do you know what ingredients were in that cream?

MSHOZA:  Yeah, well, she did tell me.

REPORTER:  What's in it?

MSHOZA:  I don't know.

REPORTER:  We went to a lab and we tested the cream that you were promoting, and we found some harmful ingredients in it.

MSHOZA:  Like?

REPORTER:  Hydroquinone. We were talking about the product you were endorsing.

MSHOZA:  It's not my product, I can't really comment on that.

REPORTER:  And you endorse it.

MSHOZA:  And I stopped for such a reason.

REPORTER: Hydroquinone is illegal in South Africa, it is banned to be sold as a cosmetic, there should be no hydroquinone sold here because it is dangerous and damaging to your health.

MSHOZA:  Yeah, it apparently is, that is true.

REPORTER:   You said when we met with you one time that you are all for women, you know, young girls using products that are not harmful to their skin?

MSHOZA:   I'm not to be blamed for anything that has to do with skin lightening. People do a lot of things. So I don't know, if it has hydroquinone like you said, I can't be blamed for it. Look, it is a business transaction.

REPORTER:  A business transaction?

We contacted Pearl, the manufacturer of this cream, with the lab results. She told us she no longer intends to put it on the market. After we left South Africa, Mshoza launched her own range of creams. She posted on social media, saying, "The new cream is making me look like a white woman". Her cream is on sale now. 


tania rashid 

simon rawles

associate producer
kate hardie-buckley

jasmyn asvat
tshego molete

story editor
ella newton

original music
hamlin and jolliffe

28th February 2017