The Skin-Whitening Craze Has Shifted into Overdrive in Kenya’s Wretched Slums in Sync with Child Prostitution

By Onderi M. Dennis

Going by the rising cases of skin whitening treatments across Africa, one would conclusively fault People magazine for declaring Lupita Nyong’o, Academy award-winning actress, the most beautiful person in the world. For various reasons, black people are increasingly yielding to white supremacy as more men and women set about a “beauty-seeking mission” that has now demonized the dark skin. Led by socialites and various celebrities from the continent’s entertainment industry, the crest of the skin-whitening wave currently seems to be hovering over Nairobi’s informal settlements.


skin whitening
Contrasting looks of some of Africa’s big names who have undergone skin whitening procedures with that of Lupita Nyong’o, who was named PEOPLE‘s most beautiful person in the world.


Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, is ever abuzz with activity, and a covert participant observation by Ambia Africa reveals that even minors are involved in live sex shows under the cover of darkness. Child prostitution, which is increasingly eroding the slum dwellers’ dignity, has taken the form of organized crime whereby girls as young as 15 are lured into exclusive dens around Karen by a notorious prostitution ring that pays them as little as KES 200. It is shocking that the trend is not a mere coincidence with the rising cases of skin-whitening in the slum. One can be forgiven to conclude that many of the female Millenials in the area are by-products of mixed-race affairs, but it appears this is the breed leading the chase for male clients.

Mueni, a self-confessed sex worker, and some of her friends currently ply their trade in downtown Nairobi.

“The yellow-skinned lasses have intensified the competition here,” she says.

Amina, one of her cronies, also concedes that it is her apprehension about bleaching her skin (rather than her age) that compelled her to consider shifting bases.

After one week of prying into their private lives, Ambia Africa established that several young girls are advised to lighten their skin if they want to remain “competitive” because it turns out that the modern Kenyan man prefers light-skinned women. Five of the girls we spoke to (only on condition of anonymity) have now turned to dangerous skin bleaching products because they idolize local celebrities, especially Vera Sidika, who is rumored to have spent at least $170 000 on skin whitening procedures hitherto.

“I look up to her,” one of the girls confessed, “and she’s a living proof that light skin is the hot cake in town…I will not stop until I look like her.”

A Trap for the Unwary

In Nairobi’s River Road, only someone interested or concerned can hear the hisses coming from the beauty shops and booths. This is where the backstreet beauty trade is booming; girls and women flock the shops either to buy creams or receive injections. Harleen, one of the sellers of skin whitening products, reluctantly reveals that a greater percentage of her clients are less than 25 years old.

Each of the five girls we spoke to counted at least seven of her friends who are in the race to become what they maintain is “prettier than the current look”. In this line, the word Mkorogo, which is a Kiswahili equivalent of “concoction”, is rapidly becoming a popular vocabulary among these girls. This method entails mixing various skin-bleaching creams, which experts warn can have toxic effect on the skin.

Lal Kumar, a Nairobi-based dermatologist, reckons that such methods increase risks of cancer and adrenal gland complications.

“In fact, most (if not all) over-the-counter skin-lightening creams contain a substance called hydroquinone and traces of corticosteroids,” he says. “These substances can be potentially harmful to the human skin.”

According to Harleen, an injection costs KES 5 000, which is more expensive than the creams, but she reckons it guarantee an even tone, but one has to go for a couple of them before the results begin to show.

“It just works like magic, but it is for someone who wants fast results,” she says.

However, according to Dr Pranav Pancholi of Avane Clinic, even such shots are just as dangerous as the creams.

“The products are packaged and marketed to look attractive, but anything could be inside. Injecting products containing AHAs is abnormal. It can kill body tissue and cause serious infection,” he told Al Jazeera.

Many of the products that are sold to River Road clients are sourced from unregulated materials from China, the DRC Congo, and India among other countries. Market Surveillance Officers from Kenya Bureau of Standards recently raided beauty shops and booths along River Road and nabbed cosmetics and beauty products that were found to contain substances whose sale is highly regulated, such as hydroquinone, steroids, mercury and hydrogen peroxide. According to the Quality Assurance Department, “these substances can only be sold in registered pharmacies and chemists on recommendations of a medical doctor for a given period of time.”

KEBS requires all creams, lotions, gels, and soaps among other skin care preparations containing hydroquinone, steroids, and hormonal substances to be registered by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board for medical use years after their use in cosmetics was prohibited through gazette notices 4310 of 14th August 1998 and 7169 of November 2000. Some of the products approved by the board include Diprosone ointment, Mediven cream, Betnovate cream and ointment, Nerisone cream, Dermovate cream and ointment, and Hydrocortisone cream and ointment.


Mediven Cream, one of the products registered with and approved by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board for medical use


The bleaching trend remains popular in Africa, especially in countries like Nigeria, where at least 75% of women use skin-lightening products, followed by Togo with 59%, South Africa with 35%, and Mali with 25%, according to a survey conducted by The Independent. Some of the household names that have undergone skin-whitening procedures include Nollywood sensational Ini Edo, Kenya’s famed socialite Verah Sidika, Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star Dencia, Cameroon’s former model Irène Major, Ghana’s former model Nasara Kittoe, her compatriot Mariam Abdul Rauf, and South Africa’s songstress Mshoza among others.

Although the relationship between the rising cases of child prostitution and skin-whitening cannot be clearly established, the craze seems to be sweeping through Nairobi’s informal settlement, and it is not sparing even minors. However, the one thing that is certain is that women and girls are convinced that the modern Kenyan man is easily attracted to fairer skin.

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