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The Dark Side of Skin Lightening in Kenya

January 5, 2023
January 5, 2023
Jonathan Borba via Pexels

Recently it was reported that the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) seized a total of 435 banned cosmetics from the market: 16 skin-lightening lotions and gels; 59 skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone; and 10 soaps and 46 skin-lightening creams containing mercury and its compounds. KEBS stated that “constant use of cosmetic products containing hydroquinone and mercury plus its compounds can result in rashes, swelling, redness or peeling, fatigue, weakness, bone pain and skin discoloration.” In addition, exposure over long time periods can even lead to “kidney damage, digestive illnesses and nervous diseases.”

In 2019, and later revised in March 2022, the Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD) in Kenya conducted a study to investigate the usage of mercury in beauty products. Across 50 samples of serums, soaps, and creams, CEJAD discovered that 46 skincare products available for sale in the Kenyan market contain mercury in spite of the ingredient being banned. Mercury works to lighten the skin by inhibiting “the formation of melanin by rendering the enzyme tyrosinase inactive; and it exfoliates the tanned outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid,” explains Lynn M. Thomas, a history professor for the University of Washington and author of Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners.

The history of skin whitening and lightening is steeped in colonialism, which has given rise to  colorism and the discrimination of light-skinned people over those with darker skin. The preference for lighter skin has given rise to a global market largely fueled by Asia and Africa for skin-lightening products valued at $8.8 billion in 2022 and projected to reach $11.8 billion by 2026―growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.6%. Statistics compiled by the World Health Organization in 2011 showed that 40% of African women bleach their skin. In some countries the figure is higher: a staggering 77% of women in Nigeria, 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, 27% in Senegal, and 25% in Mali use skin-lightening products. The rise in disposable income and e-commerce penetration is driving the category growth, but it has also increased the proliferation of a market for products containing banned ingredients.

The recent call for ingredient transparency by consumers and organizations, along with a crackdown by many African governments, makes it likely that this won’t be the last we hear of cases like the one in Kenya. The different international standards around the use of  hydroquinone and mercury cause confusion for consumers and opportunities for manufacturers to exploit the lack of globally homogenized regulatory guidelines.

Laws in some African countries, such as South Africa, have been passed to prohibit the marketing of skin-lightening products using phrases like “bleach,” “lighten,” or “whiten,” but companies have found ways to get around these rules, especially through social media. With 40% of women in Africa regularly using skin-lightening products and the proliferation of products that include hydroquinone and mercury, it raises the age-old question: what is the price of beauty?


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