Deep within Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) on River Road, countless stalls hawking wigs and beauty products overwhelm the senses. “Mafuta, mafuta,” the shopkeepers call out to you, which means “oil” in Kiswahili. Upon entering the maze of shops, a staggering assortment of facial creams and serums with labels ranging from French to Arabic emerges. The models on the boxes and bottles are all light-skinned, many with blue eyes and blonde hair.
Despite governmental bans on skin lightening products and a growing global movement to embrace one’s natural beauty—from nappy hair (natural and chemical free) to dark skin—the covert business of lightening skin color thrives all the same.
Few people are willing to admit or speak openly about this aspect of their skin care regimen, as it is generally frowned upon by society even as the lighter skin that one is born with or comes as a result of skin lightening is elevated in society. The message is clear: We want our women lighter, but we want it to appear natural.
There is the desire for beauty to seem effortless, an unwillingness to divulge such secrets. But the implications for lightening skin color extends beyond intimate bodily care or self-perception, but into the realm of social constructs and accessibility to opportunities that manifest themselves in tangible ways, from landing certain jobs to even impacting the person one marries.
The complex topic of skin tone matters prevails in the context of professional opportunities and social hierarchy and has further complicated issues stemming from neocolonialism. It is an issue that affects non-white populations worldwide as ideas of racial superiority have transported the ideal of white skin as being the epitome of beauty. Furthermore, preference for lighter skin exists in many communities, with some ethnic groups reportedly preferring light skin over dark skin.
“I’ve lightened my skin for 10 years,” says Irene Kahoti, the shop owner of a stall called Babyface. Beyond needing to personally advocate for the products she sells, she likes how it makes her look. “They’re brought in mostly from Kampala, some from Congo,” Kahoti says. “Wherever we can get them from. My connections from working in this business for a long time means my buyers know what products I want to sell, and I don’t have to worry too much about the source.”
The lack of regulation underpins how dangerous and untraceable these products are. The formulas generally contain hydroquinone, steroids, mercury, and hydrogen peroxide elements, the most popular active ingredients required to slow down melanin production. Many sellers recommend swapping products after a few months’ use, not only because that particular brand may no longer be available, but also because the harshness of the ingredients requires the user to take a break and switch to different formulas periodically to replicate similar effects.
The science behind skin lightening
For skin lightening to work, melanogenesis—the process to synthesize melanin—must be inhibited. Injections or tablets of hydroquinone are most effective in this case, but the health ramifications are severe. Glutathione, a popular melanin inhibitor, is an active ingredient found in soaps, but can now also be obtained in the form of intravenous treatments and antioxidant supplement tablets. Patchiness may be bad enough, but they are overshadowed by much more serious health risks. The World Health Organization warns that users of banned products may suffer from liver and kidney damage, psychosis, brain damage in fetuses, or cancer.
Since these products are officially banned, they are most easily purchased in seedy shops. The lack of professional medical guidance accompanying the application of such damaging products raises further concerns. Clients may not be interested in or aware of the severity of such products, let alone comprehend their long-term effects.
“It’s not bleaching, it’s brightening,” insisted the shop-keeper of one of the many ubiquitous stalls who introduced herself as Carol. “I personally like using serums because they ‘brighten’ your complexion.” She showed us one called Cocokind, which she has used for nearly two years. The pairing of incredibly harsh and damaging ingredients with natural, soothing ones such as rose, aloe, or coconut and marketing them as targeting hyper pigmentation or anti-aging is another strategy that distracts users from the sheer brutality of what they are administering to their bodies.
Middle class Kenyan women are the main target of skin lightening products
The target audience of skin whitening products are generally middle-class Kenyan women – those with the budget to spend a minimum of 300 KES (~$3) on such products every few months, but perhaps lacking opportunities to travel or work abroad and personally understand diverse beauty standards elsewhere. There is however a product for every price point, meaning that even lower-income Kenyans can find products to lighten their skin with – albeit with even harsher ingredients.
Kenyans with greater exposure may see beyond their conditioned environment and better understand how foreign men may be attracted to dark skin for reasons of exoticism. Or they might also be adherents of larger regional and global pan-african movements that encourage darker skinned people to love the skin they are in. Their friend groups may likely be more diversified, where pressures surrounding skin tones do not exist in the same way as they would in their grandparents’ village.
“I really had no idea that people in Europe want tan skin,” Kahoti said. “We’re just after the type of glow that comes with brown skin.” This sentiment is echoed by influencers who post advice about how long it will take for glutathione treatments to work without any sort of medical licensing.
The messaging remains mixed. It took 2020’s Black Lives Matters movement for some of the largest Western brands catering to global audiences such as Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Chanel to finally reconsider using words like “white,” “fair,” and “light” in their marketing. “Changing names won’t change the poison they have built in people’s minds,” one comment retorts in response to a video announcing how Unilever is dropping ‘fair’ from their universal ‘Fair & Lovely’ skin lightening cream. Only time will show whether slight, strategic changes in marketing tone may percolate down to tangible changes in beauty standards.
Yet the pressure comes from all sides – not only from the desire to be physically lighter to match Western looks – but also internally from Kenyan communities in both their tribal dynamics and interactions with foreigners. “Brown skin can also indicate a preference for [women from certain tribes],” says a man who works at Black Fly Design, a tailoring shop on the edge of Kibera in Nairobi. “It could be both attraction for something different or preference for those of a certain tribe [who are generally lighter skinned].”
Cultural context is imperative when examining the implications of skin color. Ruth Abade, the Kenyan owner of Black Fly Design, has studied design in Milan and regularly attends fashion festivals in New York City. She says that there is also the assumption that white skin equates certain western standards – one being financial independence.
Those with lighter, brown skin may be associated more with assumptions of privileges of mzungus (white people). “Advertising creates flawed images,” she explains. “The color of one’s skin is marketable, monetizable. Connotations of lighter skin include higher visibility, being more ‘seen.’ And of course this marketing depends on the target audience.” In Kenya, the African man is one of the most important vectors behind such marketing.
Back on River Road, Kahoti explained that while both men and women come for her products, the majority of her clients are female. The youngest are in their early 20s, but some are in their 60s or 70s, “Everyone wants to look beautiful,” she says. “It’s never too late.”
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox