Health Areas

Skin bleaching; the epidemic of colour prejudice

Fair skin has been linked with beauty and success. Infact, we have moved away from appreciating men and women with skin which is the hue of dark roast coffee.

The tides of change are slowly but surely sweeping across our country pushing for a new meaning of beauty.

We call it skin lightening.


Skin whitening.

But it is all the same.

We have defied our darker skins that are as smooth as caramel. We are worshipping mkorogo.

Popping tablets.

If you have more shillings to spare, an injection will do the work.

                                                             Black is beautiful. Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

We are facing an epidemic of colour prejudice in Kenya. . We are bleaching our skin; removing the protective skin pigment that protects us from the adverse effects of the skin. Melanin gives your skin the hair, natural colour.

Skin bleaching has given a halo effect where an impression of beauty and success is formed due to the lighter skin tone.

But beauty is being comfortable and confident in your own skin.

Consultant dermatologist at Kenyatta National Hospital, Dr Evanson Kamuri warns that bleaching kills the melanin-making cells and this can lead to skin cancer. Dr Kamuri observes that over-the-counter creams are the most popular and also followed by home-made mixtures.

“The creams contain hydroquinone as the main ingredient which carries the promise to lighten dark skin. We are introducing poison into our systems,” said Dr Kamuri who is also the Chief Executive Officer at Kenyatta National Hospital.

Bleaching removes the skin pigmentation. Photo by Audrey M Jackson on Unsplash

Dr Kamuri clarifies that skin creams with more than two per cent of Hydroquinone are illegal though at strength of 4 percent or higher, it is prescribed for short-term use to lighten skin blemishes like sun spots.

Skin lightening creams contain a wide variety of active ingredients such as mercury, hydroquinone, and steroids which are highly toxic, especially after prolonged application. In a decade-long study, scientist Iman Al Saleh found high mercury content in many products sold on the Saudi market. This were later banned by the Saudi government on health grounds.

Skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone . Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

In 2011, the World Health Organization published an assessment on skin bleaching in 2011, which showed that 77 percent of Nigerians use skin-lightening products—the highest proportion in the world.

Dr Kamuri notes that the allure of the young women who desire to transform their skin from dark- to light-skinned is increasingly worrying. How do the creams work?

“The mercury salts found in these skin lightening creams inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone,” said Dr Kamuri.

The World Health Organisation has warned that skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone are frequently inadequately labelled and contain concentrations exceeding the permitted limit.

He refutes that skin lightening and bleaching are two separate terms. He further warns that the effects are life-threatening and not worth the risks taken by men and women who bleach.

Dr Kamuri clarifies that skin lightening is not a euphemism for bleaching. “Skin bleaching and skin lightening mean the same thing!”  Dr Kamuri said.

Bleaching leaves the skin thin. Photo by Brandless on Unsplash

Skin bleaching causes the skin to burn and leaves it ‘thin’ hence predisposes the skin to burns. They cause problems such as;

  • Skin irritation
  • Blisters
  • Blisters or black, dead skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Faintness, weakness & dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Muscle twitching & seizures,
  • Cardiac arrest or irregular heartbeat

Other long-term effects of skin bleaching include;

  • Scarring
  • Kidney, liver or nerve damage
  • Abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)

Re-define beauty

Dr Kamuri has called for a re-definition of what is beauty. ‘We cannot always tag a light-skinned woman or man as beautiful and attractive respectively. We are driving the darker skinned ones to bleaching,’ Dr Kamuri said.

We need to have the value system in our societies reviewed so we can stop telling our girls that they need to have a fairer-skin tone.

We are all beautiful in our own skins, he concluded.



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