Walking down River Road means being assaulted by Kenyan enterprise at its best, whether it is the hawkers camping on the pavement, the shops selling kitenge materials neatly piled from floor to roof, stalls selling beauty products, or the inevitable “Aunty? Cream?” from women with exceptionally light skin and drawn-on eyebrows.
They tend to approach women with darker complexions and smile conspiratorially, their intonation just loud enough for you to hear but low enough to escape the notice of other passers-by.
They identify their targets and move in for the kill with relative ease, their questions more of a suggestion than a promotion. The implication is clear: Lighter skin is desirable.
Skin bleaching — the lightening of dark skin in a bid to seem more attractive — seems to be a trend that will not go away any time soon.
Not even the praises sang of Hollywood star and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o’s chocolate skin and pep talks to young girls that they are black and beautiful will change the notion ingrained in people’s minds.
Not even bold statements about black women such as “black is beautiful” and “when you go black, you never go back” will stop this trend that is now nearing epidemic levels.
For instance, three weeks ago, there was an uproar on social media when a video vixen and socialite proudly admitted to using cosmetic products to change her chocolate-dark skin to as close a shade to white as possible. Most Kenyans condemned her actions, sparing no insult in denigrating her decision to lighten her skin.
And when she mentioned that she had spent millions to bleach her skin, she further fuelled the ire of many, who felt that she had sacrificed her self-esteem to garner attention.
Using #BleachedBeauty, the conversation on social media was awash with mixed feelings and opinions regarding her decision to make herself more desirable after she boldly claimed: “Looking good is my business… my body is my business, nobody else’s but mine.”
One user tweeted: “Lightening your skin isn’t the worst thing you can do to yourself. People should just relax about it.” Another went: “In a world where rhinoplasty, liposuction and such are becoming the norm, making your skin a few shades lighter is nothing.”
Then we hushed and moved on to other things without realising that skin bleaching, no matter how criticised or demonised, will always be part of a society that glorifies light-skinned women, popularly known as “Yellow-Yellows” in Kenya, at the expense of the dark-skinned ones who are derogatively referred to as being “tinted”.
Such social yardsticks regarding beauty have made the cosmetics industry a multi-billion dollar affair. River Road is proof that beauty is no longer natural, but the product of a series of laboratory tests.
The thousands of women who pour their money here are driven by nothing but the need to be socially acceptable and classified as beautiful, which they achieve via a concoction of pills, injections, and bleaching creams.
River Road, however, only attracts Nairobi’s lower-class damsels, because the city’s rich and reckless are ready to pay top dollar in exclusive cosmetic clinics.
That top dollar, as we learnt last week, is in the upwards of Sh1 million for a dose of a skin lightener, and the clients keep streaming in.
Nestled on the fourth floor of an upmarket mall, Dr Pravnav Pancholi’s Avané Cosmetic Dermatology Clinic and Medical Spa is the go-to place for Nairobi’s moneyed women who are uncomfortable in their skin.
He has been in business for a few years and, by the look of things, he will be for a long time to come. “We cater to the needs of women as old as 65 years and as young as 19,” says Dr Pancholi, a Harvard-trained cosmetic laser surgeon.
“Some are models, actresses, prominent women from political families, and businesswomen who want to look different. They keep saying Kenyan men prefer light-skinned women, that they want something different, that ‘something different’ is marketable.
“We also have those who come to us with botched skin bleaching attempts. Oh, it’s bad. We use laser to treat such. Some come here with serious cases of acne and are shy to tell me that they have been using skin lightening creams but a quick look at the knuckles tells me that they have been using the wrong stuff.”
In the highly commercialised business of skin lightening, women have many options to choose from, including pills — which are mainly food supplements — and glutathione injections.
Popular pills include the crystal tomato, an artificial sunscreen that controls pigmentation by inhibiting melanin synthesis.
It is also indicated to reduce existing melanin, including dark acne scars, freckles, dark underarms, and even age spots. Glutathione, on the other hand, is an antioxidant composed of glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine.
It is naturally found in avocados, walnuts, and tomatoes, although eating these will not lighten your skin. The chemical must be processed in a controlled laboratory setting to produce products that can lighten skin, which are then either injected into the body or taken in pill form. Many Asian women use glutathione to achieve the skin colour they desire.
A pack of 30 capsules of Crystal Tomato costs Sh27,000, while a single glutathione injection will cost Sh8,000. How much you spend and how you work out the combination solely depends on your budget.
But Dr E.N. Kamuri, a consultant dermatologist at Kenyatta National Hospital, warns against skin bleaching due to associated long-term effects.
“Some of the chemicals used, like hydroquinone, are very dangerous,” warns Dr Kamuri. “The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) only allows hydroquinone composition of up to two per cent of a product, but some products in the backstreets have upwards of 10 per cent concentration, which is highly toxic.”
Toxic heavy metals
According to Dr Kamuri, bleaching agents also contain heavy metals such as mercury, which often lead to kidney and liver failure. He also discredits the so-called high-end bleaching that purports to use safe products.
“Bleaching is bleaching. Be it upmarket or at River Road, people use the same products and the difference is that some bleaching is long-term while the other is short-term,” he says.
The downside of bleaching is that one is not able to protect themselves from the sun’s rays and this could lead to cancer of the skin. However, all is not lost for women who want to be a tone lighter.
Dr Kamuri says that there are some creams that are prepared and experimentally tested that can do partial skin bleaching without the aforementioned long-term effects.
There is a catch though; Dr Kamuri advises women to only bleach skin when there is a visible problem such as the aftermaths of acne, eczema, melisma, and hyperpigmentation. Laser treatment is also used for dark spots, diseased, and discoloured skin.