Vera Sidika is Kenya’s best example of what skin lightening can achieve. Vera, a musician and “influencer”, looks nothing like the dark-skinned woman she was just a few years ago. And she is not bashful about her astonishing metamorphosis.
In fact, going by the numerous no-holds-barred interviews she has given regarding her deliberate change of complexion, she is proud of her look.
In a 2014 interview with Buzz magazine, she took offence when the reporter wondered why she had “bleached” her skin.
“First of all,” she said, “don’t call it bleaching, call it skin lightening because bleaching is a small process that is done in River Road and it’s cheap.”
She proceeded to explain that she had her lightening procedure done in the UK by “specialists”, where it was done “the right way”.
“In 10 years, I will still look the same,” she said. Well, Vera has starred in music videos and gets paid to attend events. Vera has since tried to shake off the video vixen tag and other unsavoury labels by going into business. She runs a hair and beauty salon.
From her explanation on why she chose to make herself lighter, the intimation that she would not have the fame that she enjoys were she dark-skinned brings to the fore colourism, which has been described as the prejudice that has to do with preferential treatment of people with light skin, and particularly affects women of colour.
According to a 2018 study by research firm Global Industry Analysts, the global market for skin-lighteners is projected to reach $31.2 billion, (Sh33 trillion) by 2024, “driven by the still rampant darker skin stigma and rigid perception that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty, cultural refinement and personal success in several communities in Asia and the Middle East and Africa.”
The World Health Organization warns that mercury and hydroquinone, which are contained in skin lighteners, can cause liver damage and reduce resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. The substances can also increase anxiety, depression and psychosis.
The proliferation of skin lighteners is a problem that has been giving African governments keen on eradicating the practice a constant headache, since it seems that measures put in place to regulate or ban their importation have not been effective, with fraudulent businessmen somehow finding ways to beat the system.
In May this year, the East African Legislative Assembly passed a resolution calling for a ban on manufacturing and importing soaps, cosmetics and beauty ingredients containing hydroquinone.
The Saturday Nation set out to find out what chemicals Kenyan women have been using.
Thursday evening, River Road, Nairobi. Hawkers selling a variety of items, including second-hand clothes and shoes, lay out their wares on the pavement.
River Road is famous for its textile businesses, but a new sensation is taking over: cosmetics and hair products.
In small rooms in the old buildings that line this road, women make a living selling concoctions that promise a lighter complexion. They compete with those selling weaves and wigs, the other thriving business.
The skin-lightening products are packaged in bright containers, a majority with photos of attractive light-skinned women. There are also those that feature luscious vegetables such as carrots, suggesting vitality.
The majority of the peddlers are women with visibly bleached faces. They carefully scrutinise the passers-by. If they decide you could be need of their products, they call out, “Madam, mafuta!” They are furtive about it, though, careful to look as if they are waiting for someone or buying the clothes on display.
Their surreptitiousness is understandable. The Kenya Bureau of Standards has conducted several raids here, the most recent in 2017, when products worth thousands of shillings were confiscated. At the time of the raid, Gilbert Rono, a Kebs official, explained that the products had not been registered with the Pharmacy and Poisons Board and should therefore not be sold.
Some of the banned products impounded were Mekako, Peau Clair Body Lotion, Kiss Lotion, Pimplex medicated cream and Princess Lotion.
Of course, that raid and many others did nothing to discourage the sellers, a pointer that this business is, indeed, profitable.
These self-appointed dispensing chemists sell solutions for any skin problem under the sun: They have a cream that gets rid of rashes, one for black spots and other blemishes, one that promises an “even” skin tone, and one that will turn your dark skin light.
The cheapest cream we found cost Sh500, the most expensive Sh2,500, a mixture of three strong-smelling products — two pungent creams and a liquid in a transparent bottle with no label to talk of.
“Hii itamaliza rashes, dark spots na utakua light,” the young woman said, explaining that the concoction would get rid of rashes and dark spots and give one a light complexion.
Skin-lightening is not a Nairobi problem. It is indeed a global issue. In Mombasa, beauty and cosmetics shops at Marikiti and KFA Mwembe Tayari markets continue to sell the banned skin-bleaching products.
At Marikiti, the Saturday Nation visited 12 shops that sell creams and oils such as Sivoclair Lightening Body Lotion, Amira Skin Lightening Lotion, Rico Soap and Mekako Cream and soap, which were banned for containing mercury.
“This soap (Mekako) contains 2 per cent of mercuric iodide. Sensitivity to mercuric iodide is sometimes experienced. The use of soap should be discontinued if any irritation occurs," reads a cautionary pamphlet that comes with the soap.
Some of these products are labelled in foreign languages, making it hard to for people not proficient in those languages to discern the ingredients. Most of them are made in China, Pakistan and Thailand.
The Saturday Nation bought a 50ml bottle of Caro Light Lightening oil, a banned product that claims to contain 2 per cent hydroquinone, for Sh150. We also bought the banned Clear Tone Extra Skin Toning Cream for Sh300. The products lacked Kebs stickers.
A trader at Marikiti Market who gave his name as Evans said the demand for skin lighteners is high.
“Look around, there are so many light girls. They (skin lighteners) are mostly sold here because the big cosmetics shops cannot stock them, because they are banned. There are more than 10 shops that sell the products in this market,” he said.
Most of the products are priced between Sh100 and Sh1,200. Homemade products dubbed mkorogo (concoction) are sold in unlabelled containers to outwit the authorities.
In Kisumu, the banned skin products can be found around the Mega City plaza and Kenya Power House, and behind Telkom Plaza, where a number of salons and beauty shops are located. Posing as buyers, we enquired on the best lightening product, prompting the shopkeeper to show us a variety of the products he stocked.
“Which one do you want? One to bleach your skin or one to clear marks?” he asked. He picked up a blue bag behind a shelf that had a variety of products in tubes, which he claimed would bleach to “perfection”. “These are the latest,” he said, removing the contents from the bag. “They sell like hot cake. Yesterday, I sold over 10 tubes. A 30g tube goes for Sh150.”
The products included creams such as Movate, Betavelaten, and Beautiful. Apart from the hidden products, others were displayed on the shelves, including Faiza and Chadni, which go for Sh550, and lightening lotions packed in attractive white and purple boxes at Sh250 per bottle.
In Nakuru, business is booming. The trade, which is mostly done covertly in marketplaces, beauty shops, salons and even homes, is run by agents who link customers and sellers.
“Due to the illegality of the trade, in most cases, customers don’t meet the sellers in person. The customer describes the products she needs and makes the order. They then pay via M-Pesa, after which the agents tell them how they will deliver the products,” a source told the Saturday Nation.
— By Caroline Njung’e, Eunice Murathe, Donna Atola and Phyllis Musasia