Skin bleaching: Why it is harmful to your health

The Ministry of Health, Rwanda Food and Drug Authority, Rwanda Standards Bureau and Rwanda Investigation Bureau, are in a joint operation against sale and distribution of banned skin-lightening creams.

This operation was sparked off last week by the President’s tweet that called onto the responsible stakeholders to act on the increasing use of bleaching products in the country.

Skin lightening has proven to be a growing trend with many people embracing it for different reasons. Medics, however, warn that the act comes with a number of risks which are extremely damaging to one’s health. According to Philip Nzayire, director of Quality Assurance Unit at Rwanda Standards Board, cosmetics are categorised into groups, including lotions, gels and oils.

He says some of the prohibited skin lightening products contain harmful ingredients such as hydroquinone, mercury, tretinoin, serotonin among others.

Nzayire says there is a tendency among African people where a big number of them are trying to change the colour of their skin for various reasons.

“Some people have low self-esteem; hence, they end up bleaching their skin to become confident,” he says.

Manufacturers, Nzayire says, take advantage of this and mix various products in body creams, including some that are harmful to the skin and one’s health in general.

“These products have a negative impact on the users, including the prospect of causing cancer, skin diseases and even secondary bacterial infections,” Nzayire says.

 He says that the only body creams that will be allowed in cosmetic shops and open markets are those approved by dermatologists.

“In our operation, we are seeing a number of cosmetics even being sold in open markets containing forbidden ingredients, and what we are doing now is wiping them out of the market to protect consumers,” he says.

To identify these products, Nzayire says people should always read the inscription of those products.

“Some of these products are inscribed as lightening, softening of the skin and some are described as containing hydroquinone, which makes it easier to differentiate them from others.”

He says for these products to be wiped out completely, it will depend on how manufacturers adhere to the rules and regulations, adding that for this to happen, it will call for combined effort from different stakeholders.

Some of the skin bleaching products found on the Rwandan market. /Net photo


At Rwanda Military Hospital alone, at least three people seek help daily concerning their skin with problems that resulted from the harmful skin products they use.

Whereas at Oshen-King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, dermatologists are consulted by at least four to six people.

At Rwanda Military hospital, 32-year-old Patricia Mugwaneza has had her third appointment with a dermatologist.

By looking at her, you can tell she is in pain because of the visible red sores that cover her face, probably as a result of scratching.

Her aim wasn’t to bleach her skin when she used a cream that was recommended by a friend. She had developed a rash and inquired about ways of getting rid of it.

After using the cream that was allegedly meant to treat the rash, she found her skin tone lightening, and because she had already started using the product, she had no alternative but to continue applying it.

After a year, Mugwaneza says she started experiencing side effects, including itchy skin, pimples that wouldn’t go away, among other things, that made her seek medical help.

Just like Mugwaneza, there are some women who find themselves trapped in this dangerous culture without knowing, though some willingly decide to do this even with the risks.

Dr Jean Chrysostome Kagimbana, a dermatologist at Rwanda Military Hospital, says many times, the number of people who seek help mostly concerning their skin are users of bleaching products.

He, however, warns that it’s important to always seek help from medical experts instead of consulting friends or sellers of these bleaching products.

An eruption of an itchy rash can be a result of skin lightening product. /Net photos


Kagimbana says that these products are very dangerous because once one starts using them; stopping leads to more complications, whereas continuing with it puts your overall health in danger.

For one to start having complications, he says, it takes a period of one to two years.

“When one tries to stop using them, the problem persists and they find themselves in the cycle again. However, the best way to handle it is to seek help from a dermatologist,” he says.

“Apart from just health problems, the product is also associated with economic impact as well as stress because of the stigma from community,” he adds.

Kagimbana explains that once one has disturbed the normal skin with these products, there is no flora of the skin, thus exposing it to various skin issues and other diseases.

 “The skin is important when it comes to protecting our body, interfering with it leads to many health problems.”

Kagimbana says side effects include big pimples that don’t go away, resulting into scars when pressed, dark spots and patches, sensitivity of the skin to the sun to a point that one can’t be under it for too long.

Hair growth around the mouth area and the chin is also a side effect.

This, he explains, is because bleaching means clearing the skin, and since these products contain harmful ingredients, the skin is already damaged and the cells beneath are damaged as well.

The medic points out that for people using these products, in case of an accident with stitching required, it’s hard and most of the time not possible because the skin is already damaged beyond repair.

“There is also eruption of an itchy rash, and at this point, one should stop using the product to avoid further complications.”

Francoise Gahongayire, a dermatologist at Oshen-King Faisal Hospital, says one can get skin cancer and other effects on the internal organs, such as renal problems.

She explains that in some skin lightening creams, there is a mineral that can go through the skin and affect the urinal system.

She further notes that the active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, so bleaching can lead to mercury poisoning.

“Because mercury is a toxic agent, it can lead to serious psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems. Also, women using these products while pregnant can pass this product (mercury) to the unborn child,” she says.

She warns that people should stop using these products because they are medicines/drugs and shouldn’t be used without prescription.

Dangers of skin lightening creams include cancer and bacterial infections. 


Gahongayire says when people affected go to the hospital, they are advised to stop but also cautioned on the complications, and guided on how to go about it.

Though effects are treatable, she says using these products for long can make management hard and sometimes impossible.

She says that the best thing to do is to stop using the creams and seek medical attention early.

Kagimbana says cases of wounds and pimples that rupture and turn into scars are sometimes irreversible and there is little that can be done.

Although the treatment is lengthy, Kagimbana says it can take a period of six months for one to get their normal skin back. He, however, says it depends on how long one has been using the product.

He advises people who find themselves in the dilemma of having their creams wiped out to seek help from dermatologists depending on how serious the issue is.