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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Coming Up : Inside Out - East: Friday February 23, 2007
Black women
"I think people have to realise that their skin is the colour it is for a reason and that is their natural colour."
Dr Olivia Stevenson

A lighter skin

The beauty industry is worth millions.

It plays on our desire to change the way we look… to be more attractive.

If you're black or Asian there's a perception that the lighter your skin, the more attractive you are.

There are dozens of products that claim to be able to lighten your skin.

Many are legal.

But Inside Out has discovered that there are some still on sale that contain a substance that's been banned here for six years.

Women using these are risking their health in their quest for lighter skin.

Light and radiant

For some time Neyasha from Northamptonshire was unhappy with her appearance.

Skin damage
Neyasha - skin damage caused by lightening products

Fed up with seeing images of beautiful, light skinned black women, she decided to take action.

She bought a skin lightening product which, unknown to her, contained a harmful illegal substance.

It has left her face burnt and scarred.

She's too embarrassed to appear on camera:

"I wanted to lighten my skin. When I applied the cream, I had no idea what it would do to me.

"My skin became itchy. I had to scratch my face so hard.

"My face became two different colours. I stayed indoors, didn't want people to see me.

"I thought it would clear up, but it just got worse…"

The product she used contained a toxic substance called hydroquinone.

It's the biological equivalent of paint stripper or bleach.

It might lighten your skin, but can lead to very nasty side effects.

Potential dangers

Dr Olivia Stevenson, Consultant Dermatologist at Kettering General Hospital says:

"Using hydroquinone as a cosmetic has potential dangers.

"The main one being that the strength can be very variable and the use of strong hydroquinone for long periods can be associated with worse pigmentation.

"You can actually end up with darker skin rather than lighter skin."

It's a criminal offence to sell such products.

Yet many shops are prepared to risk a fine or worse.

Dr Olivia Stevenson
Cosmetic concerns - dermatologist Dr Stevenson

Take Northamptonshire - we discovered it's unbelievably easy to buy products with hydroquinone from shops that are openly breaking the law.

Wearing a hidden camera our Inside Out researcher went to see if she could find any of the banned beauty products.

It didn't take long.

In The Asafo Market, in Northampton's Wellingborough Road, the shop assistant happily sold us two products - Clair-liss toning cream and Clair-liss toning body oil.

Both contain the banned substance hydroquinone.

He gave our researcher no indication that the products are dangerous.

In fact he suggested mixing them together, which can be even more hazardous.

Skin Light

Next stop was a shop called Afro and Multi-Cultural Hair Products.

The shop assistant here sold us a lotion called Skin Light.

Black and Asian women
Black and Asian women feel strongly about whitening

It too contains hydroquinone.

Third was Goddess where once again two items bought both listed hydroquinone as an ingredient.

It was a similar story at Makola Market.

We purchased two skin lighting products and both, you guessed it, contained hydroquinone.

At the heart of the matter is the cultural pressure for black and Asian women to lighten their skin tone.

It's something many women feel strongly about.

Body image

Rodelthia Murrain from Northamptonshire says:

"I personally am happy with the way I look and think we should all be happy with the way we look. We shouldn't be thinking about making our skin lighter."

Judith Glashen also from Northamptonshire, agrees:

"I am happy with my skin, the colour of it.

"I have no wish to be lighter, I have no desire to use these sorts of products to make my skin lighter. I think I am desirable as I am."

Hydroquinone - banned from skin lightening products

Although some women are happy in their skins, the sad thing is there are obviously many who are not.

We found plenty of shops happy to supply their needs.

We wanted to ask them why.

The owners of Asafo Market and Afro and Multi Cultural Hair Products didn't want to talk to us.

The manager of Makola Market wrote to us saying he "wasn't aware these substances were illegal".

He says they've taken them off the shelves.

Investigation underway

Since we filmed, the owner of Afro and Multi Cultural Hair products also called us to say that she didn't know these products were illegal because "everyone sells them".

Black woman
Time to celebrate black beauty with fears over whitening

She too has now stopped.

We've also told Trading Standards who say they will be investigating across the county.

The majority of shops we investigated in Northamptonshire were selling banned skin bleaching products.

Despite recent prosecutions, it seems there is either widespread ignorance or the belief that they won't be caught.

Neyesha has a message for them:

"To the shops that are doing this, I say - it is high time you stopped. You are causing people harm."

And dermatologist Dr Olivia Stevenson is also concerned:

"The main problems with people buying unknown cosmetics is that they don't know what's in them.

"At best they may be wasting their money. At worst they could be putting things on their skin which are potentially dangerous.

"I think people have to realise that their skin is the colour it is for a reason and that is their natural colour.

"Altering their natural skin pigment is a losing battle."

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Hydroquinone - read the facts before buying

Hydroquinone fact file

Read our fact file about the chemical in some skin lightening products...

Hydroquinone is also known as benzene-1,4-diol.

This organic compound is a type of phenol.

Hydroquinone has a number of uses - in photographic development, herbicides, dyes and skin whitening.

Hydroquinone is used to decrease the formation of melanin in the skin.

Although it is used to reduce the colour of skin, its use is banned in some countries because of fears of a cancer risk.

It may also result in severe skin irritation and sensitisation plus allergic reactions such as dermatitis. Side effects can include burning sensations, stinging, itchiness and redness/skin rash.

Other reported side effects include eye irrigation including conjunctivitis, shortness of breath, and respiratory problems.


Skeletal and haunted - the unknown soldier

When Pat Bienkowski visited a new museum dedicated to Far Eastern Prisoners of War, she was faced with the image of an unknown soldier.

Skeletal and haunted, he is described as "Australian solder - two days to live".

Yet Pat was sure it was her father. She just had to prove it.

We follow her extraordinary and emotional journey as, with the help of a forensic imaging company, she sets out to find the truth.

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Home education

Home education was a social experiment which was pioneered in East Anglia.

Inside Out goes back to meet Daniel and Ellie Draper, who featured in a BBC East documentary 13 years ago, to find out if home schooling had worked for them.

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