Unless parents affirm to their children that the skin they are born in is enough, and beautiful — and they really are convinced of this — we won't see skin bleaching going away.
That was the collective view held by panellists that included skincare experts, authors and social commentators at a panel discussion about skin lightening in Sandton on Monday.
Earlier this year, we learnt with surprise and shock that some pregnant women in Ghana are taking pills — to lighten their babies' skins while still in the womb.
"In my opinion every child I've ever seen is always a beautiful child. All these kids have gorgeous skin regardless of the tone," said Danné Montague-King, the global founder of international paramedical skincare brand DMK.
It's the messages children receive about their skin as they go through life that makes the difference, he pointed out.
"All (are) led to believe that if I'm to be anything in this society, I have to look white because lighter is better. That's a thinking; it's not a physical thing or a scientific thing, it's a thought process," he said.
It starts from a young age, not only in messages around "lightness and beauty" in media but in everyday references of every "pretty" thing likened to whiteness, pointed out panellist Noxolo Kahlana, who reflected her understanding of lightness where she grew up in Eastern Cape.
"You'd hear for example, if a brand new house is being opened, an elderly person would say this house is so beautiful it 'smells like a white person'. Those messages are embedded in your subconscious and you want to do anything to be that better, because lighter is equated to something better," said Kahlana.
And because it's social and mental thing, it can be and has to be socially and mentally challenged, stressed Montague-King. Once that battle is won, it will likely be easier to conquer issues that stem from this view, including skin bleaching.
It all starts with affirming your kids
"I feel for myself personally, what would've worked better and helped me avoid a lot of pitfalls I fell into as a young lady, is being told I was beautiful from an early age, from the purity of love of a father figure (that I didn't have)," said Kahlana.
She believes that even if people are presented with facts about the damage skin bleaching can cause, it won't change anything unless they truly believe their skin is beautiful, enough and that their skintone is not a mistake.
The definition of beauty has to include skintone from a very young age, she said, and added that this can't happen if parents themselves aren't fully convinced of this fact.
Kahlana implored all parental figures to tell their children they are beautiful, and that the skin tone they have is not a mistake, neither does it need to be fixed. "Tell them they are beautiful and make them understand and build that confidence, it will go a long way in the choices they make when they are older," she added.
"Whatever your natural tone is, is who you are... let's have it be even and right and not spotty and irregular and let's not artificially try to change it and endanger it," said Montague-King.
We need melanin education
"A lot of money has been made [from] ethnicity," said Montague-King, and this seems to be more prevalent in Africa, compared to other continents.
As far back as the late Sixties, six out of 10 women in Africa reported using skin-lightening formulas. The products reportedly became the fourth most commonly used household product after soap, tea and tinned milk.
Reports also indicate that at least 75 percent of Nigerian women and at least 50 percent of Senegalese women have used skin-lightening products. In 2013 in South Africa, one in three women reportedly used skin lighteners.
The lack of regulation of many over-the-counter and home products in South Africa is the main challenge, acknowledged Montague-King. These products can contain significantly higher amounts of hydroquinone and mercury than those recommended by dermatologists, and the World Health Organisation has banned these two active ingredients of skin lighteners from being used in any unregulated skin products.
"Pluses can become minuses if the wrong chemistry is used at home or professionally, and skin cannot all be treated alike," explained Montague-King.
"Melanin is one of the foundational defence mechanisms of our whole body; it's there for a reason. It allows us to survive radiation. If we didn't have melanin, we wouldn't exist."
"Every time you remove (or greatly disturb) melanin, you scream for hyper-pigmentation later," he said.
The effects of skin bleaching are well documented, and can result in severe and irreparable damage to the skin in the short and long term, among other things.
"Things have to be real, they have to get results, they have to do something, and not just [be about] advertising and money," said Montague-King.
If you have skin problems, don't risk irreversible skin damage and other conditions by using an unregulated over-the-counter product that is not endorsed or recommended by any dermatologist. And if you have problems with your skintone, get around people and spaces that can help you evolve into full comfort with the skin you were born with.