The Ministry of Health has asked government agencies responsible for regulating skin lightening products to step up surveillance and save the public from health risks of chemicals such as mercury that are contained in the products.
The use of skin lightening products has continued in Uganda despite a ban, which Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) imposed especially on products containing mercury and hydroquinone, the chemicals feared dangerous to human health.
A 2011 World Health Organization report says that mercury is a common ingredient found in skin lightening soaps, creams and other cosmetics, such as eye makeup cleansing products that are widely used among dark-skinned populations in Europe, North America and Africa.
The report explains that mercury in such products works by stopping the formation of the colour function of the skin thereby causing it to become lighter. It named Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, and Mali as the African countries where the products are most used among women. However, health experts have noted a growing use of the products in Uganda too.
It’s common to see women with uneven patches of light and dark colours on their skins, a development suspected to result from application of the skin lightening products.
Dr Jacinto Amandwa, the Commissioner of Clinical Services in the Ministry of Health, told Uganda Radio Network that they have asked National Drug Authority (NDA) and Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) to improve their regulatory functions in regards to the mercury-containing skin lighteners. He said the latest report on the skin lightening products on the market indicate they are adulterated.
Dr Amwandwa warned that most of the products marketed as skin lighteners contain mercury. He particularly advised consumers of such products to avoid buying from the streets but doctors of medicine who could make proper prescriptions.
In 2003, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, the body established to promote standards in areas of health, safety, social welfare, industry and commerce among others imposed a ban on skin lightening products but little has been done to stop its importation, sale and consumption among the public. Barbara Kansiime told URN that their surveillance team has been implementing the ban and always confiscate such products whenever it’s identified on the market.
According to WHO, most of the skin lightening products come in forms of soap and cream with the soap labelled as “antiseptic soap.” It says that the mercury in such products could be discharged into the environment and eventually into the food chain.
The world health governing body warned that users of such products could develop complications such as kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. While other effects, it said, include anxiety and depression. It called for increased awareness about the dangers of the skin lightening products and eventually it ban worldwide.