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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 16:10 GMT
Fighting against skin lightening
Skin treatment
Many young African girls want lighter skin
By Cathy Jenkins in Nairobi

Dermatologists in Kenya fear that young African women who think lighter skin is more beautiful are harming themselves by using skin lightening creams.

They want skin creams to be labelled better and want attitudes to change about skin colour so that young women do not feel under pressure to look lighter than they are.

Nineteen-year-old Rita Irungu's face is marked and tender because she used skin lightening creams.

For years when she was at school she bought creams not knowing what they contained.

She now has a weekly session with a beautician.

Okay, you look good but I think you would look better if you were light

Boys speaking to Rita
Rita says it was peer pressure, especially the expectations of the opposite sex, that persuaded her that light skin was better.

"You would really like this boy but he would go for the lighter girl."

Boys would say to her: "Okay, you look good but I think you would look better if you were light."

Visible consequences

Unilever, a cream lightening manufacturer, says its cream is safer because it contains no mercury or hydroquinon, the damaging substances which can be easily obtained in Kenya.

But not all manufacturers are as careful in making their products safe.

Lighter skin is wanted
Looks are seen as all important
Dermatologist Dr Melanie Miyanji treats dozens of women of all ages who have abused skin lightening creams, and are now suffering the very visible consequences.

She says the adverts are still giving the wrong message to Kenyan women.

"The message that goes round is not right because when they talk of blemish-free skin they usually link it to lighter skin, or at least that's the way people look at it, so everyone tries to go for something lighter."

Banned in the west

Campaigners want regulations to be tightened so that creams containing harmful substances already banned in the west do not appear in places like Kenya.

Policing what is on sale in a market like Kenya's is a main problem.

If a woman wants to lighten her skin, she could probably get what she needs.

It is hoped that a group of girls taking part in the M-Net Face of Africa competition, who each dream of a career strutting the catwalks of Paris or Milan, will become the role models who could change attitudes.

To win the competition, they need perfect skin.

If they had been tempted to change their colour, they would probably not have been able to participate.

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