Intended for healthcare professionals


Why Nigeria has declared skin lightening a health emergency

BMJ 2023; 382 doi: (Published 05 September 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p1851
  1. Yemisi Bokinni, doctor and freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. yemisi.bokinni{at}

Skin lightening is a billion dollar cosmetic industry with known health dangers. As Nigeria’s drug regulator says enough is enough, Yemisi Bokinni looks at the reasons

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is a prime market for a cosmetics industry centred around skin lightening. In February of this year Moji Adeyeye, director general of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, declared the practice “a national health emergency.”1 The dangers of skin lightening include diabetes, hypertension, neuropathy, and hepatic or renal toxicity.2 And cosmetics aren’t the only products to contend with.

In neighbouring Ghana, the Food and Drugs Authority was compelled to issue a public warning over what it described as “the use of skin lightening agents in the form of pills and tablets being used by consumers including pregnant women with the erroneous impression that it would lighten the skin of their unborn babies.”3 For many parents, lighter skin simply translates to improved social and economic prospects for their offspring.

Skin lightening, as the name implies, is the process of making one’s skin colour lighter, usually with creams or lotions. It’s a recognised medical intervention used to treat specific pigmentary disorders,4 but its more lucrative market is as a cosmetic sold to people who believe that lighter skin colour will improve their prospects in life, love, or employment—fuelled by decades of ingrained cultural bias and discrimination against people with darker skin.

With products catering to almost every socioeconomic bracket, skin lightening is a billion dollar market in Africa and Asia and is headed for expansion,5 making it a mammoth task for governments …

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