South African dermatologist Ncoza uses chemistry to challenge skin-lightening product misuse through educating consumers and ensuring compliance with legislation.
Ncoza was born in Mtyolo, a small village in the Eastern Cape , South Africa. Without mentors, role models or supportive systems, Ncoza struggled to realise her potential. Fortunately, her family always encouraged her to pursue her dreams.
“My mother said I should never give anyone permission to undermine what I am capable of and that no matter where I am, I should try and make a positive difference to the people around me.”
After leaving school, Ncoza studied medicine for six years followed by a four year speciality in the field of dermatology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She began to build links between the chemistry she learnt in her first year and its application to medicine. As the first black dermatologist to qualify from the university and one of the first few black dermatologists in South Africa, she has responded to the need for someone who understands black skin and cultural needs of the black population.
Now a principal specialist and senior consultant in charge of five regional and tertiary dermatology outpatients clinics in South Africa, Ncoza collaborates with chemists to research the analysis of skin lighteners. Skin lightening is a major problem amongst black and Asian communities; up to 67 % of the population are affected in Africa. On a daily basis, her clinics are faced with complications of skin lightening abuse that are easily preventable. Her research aims to determine why women use skin lighteners, as well as investigate the active compounds in skin lightening products to ensure they comply with South African legislation.
Collaborating with chemists
Combining chemical research from departments in Surrey and South Africa with clinical research, Ncoza has begun to identify compounds responsible for skin lightening activity and their cytotoxicity. Together, they published a paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2013, that reported on the isolation of 12 known compounds from the stem bark of Garcinia livingstonei, traditionally used as a skin lightening agent. They used a combination of 1D and 2D NMR, MS analysis and cell assays to evaluate the cytotoxicity and the impact on melanin levels. The collaborating chemists Ncoza works with are Prof Bice Martincigh, Prof Dulcie Mulholland, Dr Moses Langat, Dr Elizabeth M Mwangi, Dr Ellen Mwenesongole and Dr Moses Ollengo.
Ncoza describes her role as “being able to merge clinical dermatology with laboratory science.” Further to studying for her PhD on ethnic skin and hair, she is also academic co-ordinator of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research programmes at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Durban, South Africa. As well as seeing positive end results in her patients, Ncoza describes her biggest love as “teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students and molding them into mature clinicians who can stand on their own but also make a difference.”
In the future, Ncoza is hoping her findings will enable her to embark on a public education campaign to educate consumers about the dangers of skin lighteners.
“I want to emphasise that the best skin that anyone has is the one they are born with.”
We need to lead by example
In terms of diversity, Ncoza finds her work environment unable to support female workers. She says, “It is based on males being the major role players, and I think this has to change.” Between supporting more female role models, creating more leadership positions and making the work environment more encouraging to mothers and married women, she believes things can change.
Targeting young students at schools and encouraging balanced scientists who have families that are still able to pursue academic careers is fundamental. Ncoza says, “We need to emphasise the importance of education to the youth and do whatever we do with commitment, passion and integrity.”
“Follow your dream, work hard and look for friendly people in the field who will nurture and mentor you. Associate yourself with progressive and positive people. They are there, you just have to look for them and don’t be discouraged by obstacles, they are there to teach us coping skills.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Ncoza Dlova
Published November 2014