Illegal Skin-Bleaching Injections Rise in Popularity Thanks to Rich Kenyan Women

Rose injects Mercy, a customer, with skin whitening cream.

Rose injects Mercy, a customer, with skin whitening cream.

Standing in a small wooden booth cluttered with brightly colored cosmetics boxes, a heavily made-up woman unwraps a syringe and a needle, then fills the syringe with pink cream that’s been decanted from a blue packet. “You must only use a small amount, otherwise you can become albino. This is strong stuff,” she says as she pricks her customer’s skin.

Rose is one of dozens of skin bleaching gurus that operate along River Road in downtown Nairobi, a hub for illicit activities that is notorious for its knock-off electronics, budget brothels, flamboyant transsexuals and petty crime. It is also known for its backstreet beauticians, like Rose, who promise clients that their treatments will make them look six years younger and ten shades lighter.

These salons have been around for a long time, and have caused a number of health scares over the years, often due to creams with high mercury content, but recently more extreme treatments have started to become popular and are causing concern amongst health officials.

The popularity of skin-bleaching injections has rocketed over the last 18 months, according to Dr. Pranav Pancholi, a Harvard-trained dermatologist who works at Kenya’s Shah Hospital. Pranav says because it’s a recent phenomenon, no one really knows what the longterm health implications are.

“The products used on the streets are not used by certified professionals” he says. “The trade in black market creams and injections is completely unregulated. There is no way of knowing just how dangerous they are.”

On River Road the skin-bleaching specialists hawk their goods sitting on stools in the street or standing in the doorways of their shops, some of which are just wooden booths rammed full of small colored boxes and creams. The more ramshackle beauty salons have gaudy hand-painted signs, and sit sandwiched between seedy bars, DVD sellers, and starkly lit brothels. Others are slightly more upmarket, with large glass windows and neon signs.

The sellers are all women and know how to hustle. They can be brash and aggressive, often standing outside and whispering and hissing at women who pass by to entice them into their shop.

“The injection lightens you from inside. It makes women clean,” she tells me. “If you want an even color and fast results, injecting is much better than a cream.”

The injection is expensive at $70 per shot, nearly a month’s salary for many Kenyans. “Most of my clients are wealthy and some are national celebrities,” she says. “Many are Somali or Indian. But, those ones never come to my shop. They send a driver with a photo of their skin color and I supply what they need.”

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