In Summary
  • The World Health Organization warns that mercury and hydroquinone, which are contained in skin lighteners, can cause liver damage.
  • The proliferation of skin lighteners is a problem that has been giving African governments keen on eradicating the practice a constant headache.

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.”

LIGHTENING PROCEDURE

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.

CONSTANT HEADACHE

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.

Skin bleaching products.

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.

BLEACHED FACES

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.

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