Before the acne flare-ups and lighter complexion, I had underestimated the impact that the skin can have on my quality of life. Now I was nervous wreck, apprehensive whenever I went out without makeup.
I was taking my children for a walk one weekend when I met my neighbour. My children consider her my friend because she sends little treats to us whenever she celebrates in her house and we do the same. They were the ones that pointed to her ‘mummy see your friend is coming.’
We have lived on the same estate for almost a decade and are round the similar age; we hang out in the same places and we live and work in this crazy Lagos. Though we do not visit each others homes often, we look out for each other. As far as friendship goes, our relationship is ok.
This evening she continued coming up with reasons to engage me in conversation. My children are anxious, getting to the park late meant less time to play before I’ll herd them back. So we tried to hurry her along. Unaware of her internal struggle and I wanted to get going, so I said my goodbyes and walked away.
She called after me almost immediately, walked up to me and stood so close that I could count the hairs inside her nostrils as she whispered ‘ehn Chichi this thing you are using is not good o’.
I, not knowing she was referring to my skin tone, looked bewildered at her. Emboldened by my cluelessness, she added ‘ you are getting fair, and I never knew you were someone who would want to change her skin colour. You are beautiful already.’
She now switched to broken English, for emphasis. ‘Your colour blend, I dey admire your colour before.’ This was shocking to me, her brazenness.
When I look at her, I see by the furrow of her brows, she was indeed perturbed.’ She added the customary ‘no vex’ Nigerians use to soften hard blows. Not that I was ‘vexed’, embarrassed was more like it.
I tell her I was battling acne, and some treatments were lightening me, that I didn’t set out to change my complexion, thank you. She replied, ‘ I talk am. I know you are not the bleaching type ‘ at this point I knew I had to flee from her. I thank her for her kind observation and assured her I wasn’t bleaching, at least not on purpose. It was disturbing that she would reflect on my beauty or lack of it under such circumstances. But I’ll rather not dwell on the negatives. I took her words as critical feedback.
As I walked away, I wondered how many other people would have labelled me the ‘bleaching type.’ I didn’t know that category existed. Who am I kidding? I know. I have judged people for changing their skin tone overnight.
A few days later I notice my children’s teachers looking at me like they were holding back a comment. Perhaps it is my heightened consciousness that made me aware of any little intense stare. I tackle this new problem with darker shade long-wear foundations. Before these acne flare-ups and lighter complexion, I had underestimated the impact that the skin can have on our quality of life. Now I was nervous wreck suspicious of anyone who looked at me more than once.
How It All Began
About a year ago, I started noticing hormonal acne. It was a pimple here, another there, nothing incredibly dreadful. In my 20s I had no skincare routine, friends and family never took any product recommendations I made because according to them the products with the most negative reviews did wonder for my skin.
Early in 2019, my face demanded more attention. It was dull, dry and oily. It was obvious that the more I paid attention to it, the less impressed my epidermis got.
By mid-2019 I had to admit that I needed a piece of professional medical advice. The GP I saw insisted it was period- acne and nothing to worry about your face. And made me know I was wasting his time ‘your face is ok’ he said tersely and prescribed mild antibiotics.
Unsatisfied, I tried YouTube DIY turmeric facemasks, bentonite clay, scrubs etc; these would work for a few days, then start lightening me. I then tried over-the-counter steroids to help tackle new acne which to work like magic at first. Then toners, cleansers, serums and masks and in a few weeks I was yellow pawpaw and when I stopped everything all together, I still continued to get lightened.
Before my hormonal acne invasion, I used to have what I can’t call a skincare regimen. This included washing with soap and cleansing with mild products three to four times a week. I had these cleansing wipes I used to assuage my guilt on the days i was too tired to do the other things.
I never checked for the ingredients listed at the back of the bottles. Not one to cleanse every day, I didn't care. In my 20s I used to sleep with my make up on, and rarely used moisturizers.
In the article on WomensHealth Lorraine Scrivener, skin expert at Eden Skin Clinic explains, ‘Cell turn-over becomes slower during your thirties and skin doesn’t bounce back as it once did.’ She also advised we ditched the wipes: ‘Your twenties might have been filled with the convenience of taking off makeup with a face wipe, but your skin isn’t as resilient in your thirties.
Now that I am firmly in my thirties, I am paying for the sins of yesteryears as my skin is rebelling and demanding better treatment. In weeks following my bleaching escapades, I found myself scouring the shelves of supermarkets and online stores looking for products with salicylic acid, glycolic acid, retinol, lactic acid, benzoyl peroxide, ferulic acid, ceramide, niacinamide, aloe vera and other ingredients that promised to remove dead skin cells, fight acne, reveal a clean and clearer skin tone without bleaching the skin. There is an army of resources online to help, more so when I realised that I was previously combative in my approach, We now know our skin needs care and gentility. Skincare is not cheap and it takes time to find what works When I started my acne-fighting journey, I was looking to spend as little as possible. I visited the neighbourhood super/hypermarket and searched for products that promised to take care of pimples and dark spots but I couldn’t find the ones that did have, ‘whitener, lightening, brightening as part of its superpowers.
I tried reputable pharmacies, but the products were expensive for someone unused to spending money on skincare. I would compare their prices to prices on Amazon and other international eCommerce websites and refuse to pay for them, telling myself I’ll buy when i travel or when i find someone coming from the abroad’.
It was a herculean task finding a product that could keep pimples at bay without bleaching., I settled for a cleanser and toner by a popular cosmetic brand. But within a few days, I observe the lighter and uneven complexion also the DIY concoctions were darkening the spots the more. Impatient and new to persistent acne i kept trying new products, all promising to ‘reveal even complexion, cure hyperpigmentation. It was around this time, my nemesis appeared in the form of my ‘concerned neighbour’.
We overlook the importance of the dermatologist. Visiting a dermatologist would help you find clarity to the most puzzling skin drama. It is pricy and HMO c
Why people bleach
There a gazillion articles on the internet that are unsympathetic skin bleachers, skin bleaching is also known to have disastrous consequences that could lead to death. Also, skin bleaching is because of underlying self-esteem and mental health challenges. I wouldn’t want to be such. According to Bimpe who works as a sales rep for a mass-market cosmetic brand with officers around west Africa ‘ people won’t buy your products if you don’t declare that it will whiten, lighten, half-cast them in days’.
A chief reason for skin bleaching is Colonial mentality. According to Wikipedia, the colonial mentality is the internalized attitude of ethnic or cultural inferiority felt by people as a result of colonization, i.e. them being colonised by another group. It corresponds with the belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own. Wikipedia Many women want whiter skin because whiteness equates to beauty and you hear darker-skinned women describe their beauty with a defensiveness that is pitiful, on the shelves of supermarkets, you see creams claiming to whiten your skin.
What I now know
I now know that people will judge you when your skin tone changes, I also know that even when they don’t judge you, you will feel judged. brighter skin tone is not always an evidence of bleaching, sometimes people have become sunburned and neglected their skin for so long, once they use products with ingredients like alpha arbutin, glycolic acid, liquorice root extract, lactic acid, niacinamide, kojic acid it will lighten the skin while taking care of dark spots and hyperpigmentations without the risks associated with skin bleaching. What has helped? Now I cleanse, tone, use a serum and moisturize my face every day and night and I know cheaper isn’t always better. Also, night products vary from day products. I avoid oil-based products at night.
Truth be told, this new regimen has worked, my skin is brighter than my old complexion, I am not as dark-skinned I used to be 5 years ago.
Above all, I have learned that there are plenty of high power products that can combat dehydrated skin and rebalance your complexion without bleaching.
A lot of women, like me who develop skin conditions and hope it will get better on its own and go away. But plodding along with something that is making you unhappy, is never a good idea. You can have great skin at any age, as you get older, you have to be a little better at looking after it, without bleaching your skin of course.
A version of this story, also written by me was earlier was published by Guardian Life