The name Caro Light may be familiar to many women – well, to those, at least, who like to use skin bleaching cosmetics.
But if you are not that sort of woman, then you will not know this brand, Caro Light, which is one of the fastest moving skin-bleaching range of products in Kenya.
Caro Light cream is ordinarily applied on the skin to transform a woman from dark- to light-skinned in a matter of weeks.
But self-appointed skin-bleaching ‘experts’ on Nairobi’s River Road have found another way to use one of the brand’s constituent potions – by injecting it.
The injection – which is thought to be a mixture of saline solution and Caro Light’s glycerine gel – is not as popular as the topical cream, partly because of the cost.
It costs a minimum of Sh10 000 for one injection, three times the cost of a three-month supply of a concoction of creams, popularly referred to as mkorogo, that would do the same job.
This is against the Sh300 that a 300ml tub of Caro Light gel costs.
The profit margin may seem steep, but it seems this is a hedge against the risk of getting caught by the authorities; the vendors who offer the illegal injection also know that they would need a lot of money either to bribe or bail themselves out if they were caught in a random swoop.
However, in spite of the cost and the risk, one of the cream vendors whispers that at least two new customers come in every week to get an injection.
Bleaching creams, soaps, gels and lotions such Movate, Jaribu, Peau Clair, Betalemon and Mekako have long been banned in Kenya because of their hydroquinone, steroid and mercury components.
This is due to their harmful effects on the skin and other body organs.
However, the market for them is thriving. Some of the banned potions have made their way back onto shelves by adjusting their labelling to say that they contain no mercury and less than 2 per cent hydroquinone (the legal limit for over the counter topical solutions) so while these banned bleaching creams are sold and discussed more openly, information on the injections is harder to come by as few want to talk about it.
Most vendors even deny knowledge of their existence, and it takes our team a while before we find someone willing to talk to us about it.
A walk down River Road will reveal that many small cubicles are packed with skin lightening creams – all with the clever that they are hydroquinone-free disclaimer.
Skin ‘specialists’ stand along the corridors calling out to would-be customers – usually women with acne, blackheads or dark skin in various shades.
Some have obviously used their ‘expertise’ in skin bleaching on themselves.
They have unsightly red blotches and dark patches on their skin, but there are some whose only giveaway are their dark elbows, knuckles and lips that hint at formerly dark-skinned women.
Mkorogos go for roughly Sh3 000, while creams and lotions may go for less. But even more sinister is the new wave of skin bleaching agents, which are introduced into the body via injections and/or pills.
We pose as customers and come across Maggie, a cream vendor, who eventually leads us to a lady called Jackie who is willing to sell us the injections.
“(The injection) can turn the skin colour of the darkest Sudanese to look like that of a sallow-skinned Asian,” she boasts.
The injection, she says, costs Sh10 000 and is given at her stall, not far from Maggie’s.
She explains that I would also have to buy a skin firming lotion and skin tone-maintaining concoction of creams that she would prescribe after I pay for the treatment.
Jackie insists that the skin-lightening injections are free of side effects, but Maggie and another seller whisper a different story.
Maggie warns that I would have to take a few days off after the injection, because “it makes you sick.”
Moreover, it may damage my organs and make me infertile. “You do not look like a mother yet. Do not do this to yourself if you do not have a child yet because this thing can ruin your organs. A friend has been bleeding continuously since she got the injection,” Maggie continues.
Maggie’s assertions may be motivated more by business rivalry, but her assertions are close to the truth.
Despite having a hydroquinone-free disclaimer on its label, Caro Light, one of the ingredients in the skin-lightening injection, has 2 per cent hydroquinone listed among its ingredients.
While some opt for this dangerous injection, there are those who prefer to swallow pills.
In another shop, I listen as the seller prescribes a mix of products to remove my blackheads, even out my skin tone and make me lighter-skinned, before I mention I have heard that pills work faster.
“I have tried the creams and they do not work. Do you have pills?” I ask.
That seller claims that since skin-lightening pills are more dangerous to sell than creams, nobody stocks them.
Instead, customers make an order by paying a Sh20 000 deposit and wait for them to be shipped from Dubai. The client then pays another Sh20 000 and gets a dose to last a year.
The tablets allegedly work by blocking melanin formation. Within four weeks the whole body begins to change and one takes the appearance of a half-caste.
Rosemary, the vendor telling me about the pills, warns that I would have to take the pills for life to maintain the look. “If you ever stop, you will look worse than you look now.”
I end up buying 10 pills from another vendor who is willing to sell them to me for Sh1 000 with a promise that I will pick more up before I clear that dose.
The pills are not branded and are brought from a store – where they are kept hidden in a black plastic bag.
The deal is done under a small table, as she insists that nobody should see the small white tablets because nobody knows that she sells them.
“You take one before breakfast and another before supper for the best effects,” she tells me, and reminds me to come for the rest of the dose before the end of five days.
The pills do not come with a packet label, but I find out that they are called Mequinol. Mequinol is a depigmentation pill, sold exclusively on prescription, and used in the treatment of liver spots and vertiligo.
Too high a price
Irene Njoroge, a cosmetology consultant, says that women pay a high price for bleaching themselves.
“Women associate light skin with many benefits, high among them the power to keep men hooked. But after long-term use the skin becomes weak and becomes more prone to sun-burn and consequently skin cancer,” she explains.
Skin also ages faster, with wrinkles and sagging caused by the loss of collagen – the substance that keeps the skin firm.
Worse still, dermatologists say that even for people being treated for hyperpigmentation, it is important that the skin-lightening ingredients only suppress pigment production for a short while, but not destroy the cells that make melanin.
The search for lighter skin is not only targeted at dark-skinned women. In Asia, and generally online, a health supplement called glutathione is all the rage for its one side effect – the power to lighten the skin.
Glutathione is made by the body from the food we eat and is used to fight free radicals. The claims are that glutathione works by deactivating an enzyme that is used in the production of melanin, the pigment that gives human skin its colour.
Skin-whitening injections, with glutathione as the active ingredient, are popular in countries like the Philippines, where high-dose glutathione drips supposedly produce the highly desired milky white skin.
While those who offer it claim it has no harmful side effects, there are counter-claims that repeated high-dose injections could lead to kidney failure, blood poisoning and peeling of skin which exposes the body to infections.
The sellers advise one to take over 1000mg or more (depending on one’s body weight) of glutathione for the best effects.
Ordinarily, glutathione supplements are taken in doses of 150mg per day. At a Healthy U, a health supplement shop, a retail assistant expressed shock when I asked for high dose glutathione pills, saying it was too high.
Other possible side effects of high dosage glutathione include nausea, stomachache and vomiting.
Another ingredient used in the skin-lightening drips, tranexamic acid, could lead to liver failure.
While dermatologists argue that glutathione taken orally cannot lighten the skin because the body does not absorb it in that form, some sellers claim to have overcome that hurdle.
Kyusoku Bihaku pills made in Japan and shipped to anyone who orders from anywhere in the world claim to make glutathione pills that can be absorbed by the body.
They contain NAC, which apparently boosts glutathione levels and ensures that any glutathione lost in digestion is made up for.
Kyusoku Bihaku – a Japanese term meaning ‘pure white’ – pills are the subject of numerous discussion forums on the web.
On their own blog, they write that while their brand is allegedly safe, there are brands that are not.
They write that mixing glutathione with ‘unsuitable components’ can cause whitening of the hair, pimple and acne breakouts, and other unpleasant side-effects. They, however, do not mention what products should not be mixed with glutathione.
While they vouch for the pills for use by diabetes and cancer patients, they later warn that people suffering from diabetes should not take the glutathione pills.
Additionally, they say, glutathione does not interact well with some drugs used for chemotherapy and the KB pills may inhibit the absorption of magnesium.
Unfortunately, the pack of KB pills has no insert to warn users of these potential dangers of using the pills.