• Deep within Kenya’s Central Business District along River road, it is not a surprise to find countless beauty stalls selling skin bleaching facial creams, soaps, serums and oils.

Skin whitening cream
Skin whitening cream
Image: MARGARET WANJIRU

In a world where lighter skin has long been linked to wealth, status and social class.

'Melanin', 'black don't crack!' and other phrases that praise a black woman or man might slowly be dying as people are busy preaching wine and drinking water; opting for lighter and fairer skin.

“Black don’t crack!” is a famous phrase that means black skins are highly durable and comes as a source of pride for many people of African descent.

Deep within Kenya’s Central Business District along River road, it is not a surprise to find countless beauty stalls selling skin bleaching facial creams, soaps, serums and oils.

Others go to an extent of hiring shopkeepers to call out to customers.

“Mafuta! Sister Mafuta!” You will hear them call out. Meaning “oil” in Swahili.

The irony is, most of these ladies who call out are of a darker complexion.

What the products do is limit the amount of melanin or pigment in the skin, making you appear lighter.

A new analysis done by CNN has found that hundreds of skincare products sold on online platforms like Alibaba, Amazon, Jumia and eBay, have high amounts of mercury.

Mercury is considered one of the top 10 chemicals that pose a major public health concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It has however long been used in skin bleaching and whitening products most consumers are aware of the risks they might face and continue to use it anyways.

The long-term use of the products puts them at risk of damage to the eyes, lungs, digestive, nervous and immune systems.

They are also at risk of mercury poisoning, painful steroid acne, irreversible skin ulcers, skin redness, high blood pressure, sensitivity to light, kidney failure, constant burning sensations and to some extent coma, stroke or death.

In fact, in California, a woman went in a coma after suffering mercury poisoning from using a Pond's-labelled skin cream that was imported from Mexico.

In some ways, challenging the practice of skin-lightening on the basis of skin damage is a lost cause, as users will so often believe that the aimed-for benefits will outweigh the dangers with some, already aware risks they pose to their health.

South Africa became the first country in the world to ban skin bleaching products and was recently joined by Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Ghana.

Despite these restrictions, consumers are still able to obtain products from backdoor street vendors and cosmetic shops.

A study was done by Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) tested 271 products sold on online platforms from across 16 countries and discovered nearly half of the products contained mercury, some at levels as high as 65,000ppm.

Meanwhile, here in Kenya, according to a 2021 public review draft published by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics General requirements for Safety of Cosmetic Products allows 2.0 mg/Kg as the maximum limit of mercury in cosmetic products while the European Union doesn’t allow any mercury in cosmetics.

Here in Kenya, the Centre for Environment, Justice and Development (CEJAD) led the study collecting more than 50 samples; mostly serums, soaps and creams and testing them for mercury.

The study which was done in 2019 and revised in March 2022 found that 46 skincare products, containing dangerous, mercury-laden and illegal skin lightening products are still readily available for sale in the Kenyan market, despite being banned by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics.

The products are sold on various online platforms and walk-in shops, most appearing to have been manufactured in Pakistan, UAE, USA, India, Thailand and China.

“It’s really concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell and flaunt and profit from illegal products that are doing significant damage to consumers,” said Michael Bender, an international coordinator with the Mercury Policy Project.

Skin lightening is still a massive industry across the world with product sales at $8 billion and expected to reach nearly $12 billion globally by 2026, ZMWG said. Women account for almost 80% of the sales worldwide.

Other African countries that also sold mercury-containing skincare products topped the list included Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Djibouti and Ivory Coast.

Some businesses have gone to the extent of marketing their products on social media such as Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok.

When CNN shared a link to a video of someone promoting the practice of skin whitening alongside a product to enable it, TikTok told CNN the video was organic content, not a paid-for advertisement, and did not violate its guidelines.

TikTok also did not provide a statement to CNN but shared information that the company uses a combination of technologies and moderation teams to identify, review and, where appropriate, remove content or accounts that violate its community guidelines.

Targeting and tempting younger unaware teenagers or young adults that are users of the apps.

Amazon told CNN: "Third-party sellers are independent businesses and are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies when listings items for sale in our store."

Amazon removed the pages highlighted by CNN that were selling some of these products.

eBay told CNN: "Only items that comply with the law are allowed to be listed on eBay and any products containing hydroquinone, steroids or mercury are banned."

eBay said: "eBay continuously updates its enforcement measures to address circumvention from bad actors. Where eBay identifies bad actors, our security teams remove their listings and take strict enforcement action against them."

eBay removed the listings highlighted by CNN that were selling some of these products.