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Last updated: 06 September, 2004 - Published 18:31 GMT
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Women bleach at their peril
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Dark-skinned women in the Caribbean are putting their health at risk by using dangerous methods to lighten their skin.

A report on skin lightening that was broadcast on the BBC World Service programme Health Matters revealed that many women in Jamaica are using homemade concoctions made up chemicals such as hair straighteners and bleach to attain a lighter skin colour.

The report said that many black women wanted to be more like 'brownings' - the light brown, usually mixed race women who are said to be regarded as more beautiful than their dark-skinned counterparts.

One woman who spoke to the BBC said when she started bleaching her skin, she was quickly impressed by the results and the compliments she received for her 'brown' skin.

She only realised she had a problem when she developed acne, and had to go to a doctor to treat the condition. She said she bleached her skin because she felt lighter women got better opportunities in Jamaica.

"I think people are more recognised that way," she said. "If two people go to get a job, one is dark and one is brown, the brown one will get the opportunity."

Fortunately, she has stopped bleaching her skin, and will recover fully from the damage she suffered during the process.

However, dermatologist, Dr Neil Persadsingh told the BBC that some women are not so lucky. He said that many women use creams containing skin-lightening ingredients called hydroquinones mixed with the steroid cortisone.

They can end up with more severe and sometimes irreparable complications, like skin mutations, hyper-pigmentation and Cushing's syndrome - a symptom of which is a large hump of fat at the back of the neck.

 If you go to the ghettoes, you will see people with their faces white from the application of these bleaching preparations. You see this everyday in Jamaica.
Dr Neil Persadsingh, Jamaican dermatologist

"Some of the worst cases I have seen have been women with stretch marks, ugly stretchmarks on their body, on their neck, breasts and legs and that comes from using these potent steroids," he said.

Cancer risk

Dr Persadsingh also said women who bleach are putting themselves at risk of developing skin cancer.

"In our population in Jamaica which tends to be non-Caucasian, skin cancers tend to be few," he said. "However, because these people are using bleaching creams which are removing melanin - the skin's protection from UV rays of the sun - they could very likely develop cancers of the skin. It's a terrible price to pay for beauty that's so transient."

The dermatologist pointed out that the use of homemade concoctions containing household bleach, hair straighteners, toothpastes and curry powder is more common among women in the ghettoes of Jamaica.

"If you go to the ghettoes, you will see people with their faces white from the application of these bleaching preparations. You see this everyday in Jamaica."

Skin bleaching is not only practised in the Caribbean but it's also common in some parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.

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Even international skin care lines are cashing in on the skin bleaching trend, but their products are marketed under the more consumer friendly title of skin lighteners.

UK-based make-up artist Alison Edwards who has worked with top models like Iman, told the BBC she has seen women whose skin has become so thin, the veins are clearly visible under their skin.

"You can literally see the blood pumping through these people's faces and hands because the hands are one of the things that gives it away. You can bleach your hands, but you're going to end up getting dark knuckles and blistering, bleeding skin that must be quite painful."

Both Edwards and Dr Persadsingh said they believe that bleaching is not simply down to low self-esteem, but is also tied up in the Caribbean's colonial past, and the belief that all things black are inferior.

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