All of the Somalian women interviewed for the study ‘Skin-Lightening Practises and Mercury Exposure in the Somali Community’ used at least one skin whitening product, with most mixing together four or more and many continuing to do so even whilst pregnant or breastfeeding.
The paper explores the reasons why Somali women bleach their skin, including increasing social acceptance, removing marks from pregnancy and improving their chances of attracting a husband.
Amira Adawe, a Somali-born health educator and co-author of the paper, said: “To be a beautiful Somali woman, one has to have lighter skin color.”
Many lightening products on the market in Minnesota have been tested and found to contain mercury, a neurotoxin which can have significant negative health effects on unborn or nursing children.
Lighter skin more socially acceptable
The research was based on interviews with seven women living in Minnesota conducted in April 2011. The Somalian women interviewed used the products for a variety of reasons, including in order to reduce patches of darker skin which develop during pregnancy.
Other reasons given included securing a husband and creating a more socially acceptable appearance.
The products are applied over the entire body three times per day. The women reported using skin lighteners especially frequently before important social events such as weddings.
Beauty from mercury
On the recommendation of the researchers, the Minnesota Department of Health tested 54 lightening cosmetic products bought on the market and found that 11 contained high levels of mercury, ranging from 135 to 33,000 parts per million.
The FDA has warned that young children could be exposed to toxic levels of mercury by touching a parent who uses these products.
Law enforcement agencies believe that many of the beauty items were smuggled in from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In addition to be used by Somalians, these products are also commonly utilized by Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.